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Albany’s Dysfunction

by Mark Berkey-Gerard, Jul 20, 2004
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This summer State Assemblyman Roger Green resigned from his seat in order to avoid official censure after admitting to stealing from the state and submitting fake travel vouchers. But just a few hours later, the Brooklyn politician announced that he would seek reelection -- an election he is all but certain to win.

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Bronx State Senator Guy Velella pled guilty to bribery and is serving a year in jail. (Read articles about the campaign for Velella’s and Green’s open seats.)Bronx Assemblywoman Gloria Davis resigned from her seat after admitting to taking money in return for votes. Another legislator, Adam Clayton Powell IV, has been the subject of criminal investigation after two women accused him of separate incidents of rape. Even Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has been subpoenaed as part of an investigation into the Caesars Entertainment casino company, which, according to the New York Times, "is trying to break into the gambling market in New York," and which gave Silver and his wife a luxury suite in a Las Vegas hotel at a steep discount.

Although the state has missed its budget deadline for the 20th year in a row, major legislation has stalled, and there is no plan to fund city schools adequately, nevertheless most of the 212 legislators who are running for reelection this fall have no reason to worry about losing their jobs.

No matter what the New York State Legislature does, or what it does not do, there are no consequences for the body as a whole or for individual lawmakers.

"The problems with New York's State Legislature are so entrenched, so embedded in the structure and tradition of Albany," the New York Times wrote, "that most New Yorkers believe nothing can ever change."

HOW ALBANY HURTS NEW YORK

This spring, a group of politicians from the African country of Ghana visited Albany hoping to see democracy in action. Instead they were baffled: no budget had been approved, lobbyists ruled the capitol building, no one seemed to know exactly how money was being spent, and individual legislators had little influence over real decisions.

"We find this a little bit strange," Moses Asaga, a member of the Ghana parliament told the New York Times. "We expected more debate, more opinions.''

But Albany’s dysfunction is not just a quirky embarrassment; it affects the lives of every New Yorker.

Because the state was late in passing its budget for the 20th year in a row

  • low-income teenagers do not have summer jobs
  • property owners and low-income people have not received their promised rebates
  • thousands of college students do not know how much tuition aid they will get in the fall.

The state legislature has also failed to come up with a plan to fund a basic education for New York City students, even though a state Court of Appeals required them to do so.

And, as in past years, major legislation stalled.

Lawmakers failed to come up with a plan for upgrading its century old voting machines and so has missed out on $150 million in federal funding to pay for it.

For five years in a row, there has been no vote on whether to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour.

And although most legislators in Albany agree that the Rockefeller drug laws - some of the harshest laws in the nation – need to be reformed, they cannot agree to a deal. More than 30 years after the Rockefeller drug laws were passed, nothing has changed.

THREE MEN IN A ROOM

Although there are 212 legislators in Albany, three men - Governor George Pataki, Republican State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and Democrat Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver - hold all of the power.

They set the legislative budget. They hire all of the staff, including those who draft most bills. The leaders also dole out committee chair and membership assignments, assign offices and run all the services the members rely on, from publications to payroll.

If a member writes a bill, the leader then decides which committee it goes to, whether it gets passed out of the committee, and whether it moves on the house’s calendar. The leader in each house can stop a bill at nearly any point in the process.

That only a few men dominate the legislative body is no accident: the members have been happy to have it this way.

The most important goal for a legislator is to get re-elected; the second most important goal is to maintain the majority in each house. A strong leader can keep individuals and the party in line and on message, and by wielding his power, help the other legislators remain in power.

The average state legislator can expect to stay in office for the rest of their lives if they go along with the system.

The trade-off is that once such power is bestowed, no single legislator or group of legislators can buck it. If someone fights the system, they can run the risk of being punished or ousted.

It works for those in office. It’s just not how democracy was envisioned.

GRIDLOCK AND BILL KILLING

Over the years, the methods of operating in Albany have become counterproductive.

The leadership in each house prefers to kill the other side’s bill rather than move its own. Each house seems to believe that if the other majority wants a bill, even if it has good aspects, the bill should not be adopted unless that house is willing to give something in return that it does not want to give.

A frequently cited example is the bill the State Legislature long considered that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation - often called the gay civil rights bill. It was passed by the Assembly and even had the support of Governor Pataki. But it did not pass the Senate until 30 years after it was first introduced.

One reason for the gridlock is the division of power.

Republicans have controlled the Senate since 1966; Democrats have controlled the Assembly since 1975. Much of the time, the parties would rather point a finger at their rivals than cooperate.

Another factor is the upstate-downstate divide in the Legislature, with the Democratic Assembly more focused on New York City issues and the Republican Senate favoring suburban and rural interests. Currently, the Republican majority does not need the vote of a single New York City senator to pass legislation in its house.

Exacerbating the situation is that Pataki, Silver, and Bruno do not get along personally. When an entire institution depends on whether three men can put aside their differences and compromise, the doable becomes impossible. Pataki, Bruno, and Silver often become more interested in inflicting political punishment on one another than getting things done.

FIVE REASONS WHY ALBANY WON’T CHANGE
1. MONEY EQUALS POWER

The Senate Majority Leader and Assembly Speaker also control the money, which helps maintain the status quo.

Each leader uses his majority party’s campaign war chest as he sees fit, often shoring up the most vulnerable members, but doling out funds to maintain power and enforce loyalty.

After Republican Bronx State Senator Guy Velella was indicted for bribery, State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and 19 other Republicans donated $150,000 from their campaign funds to help pay his legal bills. A spokesman for Bruno called the act "an individual outpouring of support."

Should someone have the temerity to challenge an incumbent, the challenger is almost always at an enormous economic disadvantage. New York’s campaign financing contribution limits are far more lax than the limits imposed in presidential campaigns, and there are enough loopholes to drive a fortune through.

2. DISSENTERS GET PUNISHED

Those who challenge the leadership better be able to pull off the coup, or suffer the consequences.

Four years ago, Assemblymember Michael Bragman tried to unseat Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver from his position, arguing that Silver had a stranglehold on the legislative body and change was needed. The speaker quickly stripped Bragman of his position as majority leader and demoted two of his allies. Other members of the legislature were reportedly threatened with challengers in the next election if they did not support their leader.

Silver eventually won reelection to the post with only Bragman voting against the speaker. The other 94 Assembly members stayed loyal to their leader.

Bragman went from being one of the most powerful people in Albany to an insignificant outcast. He resigned from the State Legislature in December 2001.

3. INCUMBENT PROTECTION

Legislators also draw huge advantages simply from being incumbents.

In their daily routines, they make themselves visible in their districts, have the opportunity to perform constituent service through their government-funded legislative offices, and receive free, unchallenged public relations.

While these are appropriate activities for legislators, they provide great name recognition in elections, and name recognition is what counts.

It is no wonder that polls consistently show New Yorkers are dissatisfied with the Legislature but pleased with their representative (though few New Yorkers can name their Senator or Assembly Member). The voters do not seem concerned with this apparent disconnect, and repeatedly re-elect the same crew.

That is why Brooklyn Assemblymember Roger Green is running again and, with no strong opponent, is expected to win.

"We're supporting Roger Green 1,000 percent and he will get re-elected, period," Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party has said. "I've been talking with civic leaders and union leaders around Brooklyn and he will be back in Albany come January. No question about it."

4. DRAWING DISTRICTS

New York’s legislative districts are drawn to favor the majority party and to assure that each majority incumbent gets reelected. The New York Public Interest Research Group has made fun of the bizarre shapes that can result, creating awards for districts that it has given names like "Oops I Spilled My Coffee on the Map," "Bug Squashed on a Windshield," and "Abe Lincoln Riding a Vacuum Cleaner."

The reason is that after every census, the Legislature has the authority to draw new district lines. And while the districts must be equal in population, the Supreme Court has said repeatedly that there is no prohibition against drawing districts solely for political benefit.

The legislature’s redistricting task force is armed with detailed data on population and voting characteristics that allows them to tailor a district to an incumbent’s needs with block-by-block precision.

5. IT’S THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN

If voters don’t like what the legislature is doing, the reasoning goes, voters can throw them out. But given how difficult it is to beat an incumbent in New York, the public is left with few other options.

There is no way of placing legislative proposals or constitutional amendments on the ballot without legislative approval, nor can voters petition to recall a legislator for poor performance or criminal activity. Legal challenges to legislative actions invariably fail, as courts have consistently ruled that the Legislature, as a separate branch of government, is entitled to great deference.

In addition, there are no term limits in state government, nor are there limits on the length of time a legislator can serve as leader.

While many observers would argue that these so-called "cures" are worse than the disease, pointing to the use of ballot initiatives in California as a prime example, the fact remains that an entrenched legislature, facing no risk to either its actions or its members, has become a prescription for inertia in New York.

The only chance to make systemic change comes every 20 years, as the New York constitution requires that the voters be asked whether they want a constitutional convention.

If the voters approve a constitutional convention, the voters would then elect delegates who can reform the state constitution, establish term limits, or overhaul the redistricting process.

In 1997, the voters decisively voted against holding a convention. The next opportunity is not until 2017.

Learn More:

Blame Albany
How Albany Controls New York City
Will Albany Scandals Lead to Reform?
Albany Rules?
Upstate Downstate Debate
Eye on Albany Campaign 2004


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