Thursday, June 09, 2011

Back When New York Needed Reform, As If It Doesn't Need Reform Today

Peter A. A. Berle. Does the Citizen Stand a Chance?: Politics of a State Legislature: New York. Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1974.

The author became a member of the New York Assembly in 1969. This book describes the New York legislature and how the author believed it needed to be reformed.

New York began representative government in 1641. The Dutch West India Company Director wanted a group that could handle questions he wanted to pose, such as handling Indians accused of murder. Family heads and masters selected 12 Select Men to represent the 400 residents in Fort Amsterdam in approving Indian matters and handling various abuses. The Director disliked the Select Men system and disbanded it.

Peter Stuyvesant, a Governor of the Dutch colony, selected 18 people to administer colonial government in 1647.

The Duke of York created an elected General Assembly for the British government that created 14 laws in 1683. The laws were then sent to the Duke for his approval.

State legislatures of New York used to meet in January through the time for spring farm planting.

Elections for Speaker and leadership are usually not based on issues. Legislators usually vote according to rewards for committee positions, more staff, jobs, etc.

Bills often passed according to their being supported by key legislative leaders. Few legislators read all the bills they vote on. As one legislator once commented, “It's easier to pass these bills than it is to read them."

The Speakers has tools to influence how legislators work. One is the threat of redistricting to make it difficult for legislators out of favor with the Speaker to be reelected.

The Speaker often instructs committee chairmen as to which bills are to be reported out of committee. Many bills are killed by never leaving committee. The Speaker can further kill a bill that is approved by a committee vote by not bringing it to a vote by the Assembly. In New York, the Speaker may "star" a bill which indicates it will not be brought to an Assembly vote. This effectively gives the Speaker veto power over committee approved bills.

In New York circa 1973 and before, a legislator who was present was considered present for the rest of that week. Thus the legislator need not have been on the Assembly floor to be counted as voting "yes". This allowed the Speaker to move the bills the Speaker faces. This could be thwarted by a slow roll call, which requires each member to be present and to announce a vote verbally.

Legislative committees filter legislation. A bill’s sponsor must formally request a committee to consider a bill. Thus, legislators often propose bills they don't want enacted. Legislators often propose bills for appeasing constituencies that they recognize are not good ideas to become laws.

Berke notes the lack of professional legislature gives an advantage to the Governor in presenting data on issues. Professional expertise was then controlled by the Executive branch.

In New York, all bills in all committees are transferred to the Rules Committee a few weeks before the end of the session. The Speaker chairs the Rules Committee and picks its members. Thus the Speaker has great control in the final weeks.

The Governor, unlike legislators, is elected statewide and responsible to the entire state. The Governor is given the power to veto bills the Governor believes are not good for the state.

The Governor proposes a budget. The Governor often negotiates for legislators to support his budget in return for supporting bills the legislators want. The Governor also controls patronage jobs that can be used. Similarly, the Governor has been known to fire patronage workers sponsored by legislators after the legislator disagrees with the Governor on an issue important to the Governor.

Bills are required to be on legislators' desks for three days. This is done in the belief it will give the legislators time to read the bills. Bills with a message of special necessity may be brought to votes more quickly than three days. The Governor often proposes bills with special necessity on the last days of the legislatures to rush legislation through passage before legislators can fully scrutinize and question the bills. This is also done to rush bills through before opposing groups can mobilize against them. Berke observes the Governor is powerful enough to alter the usual checks and balances between government branches.

Lobbyists used various methods to advocate for their positions. Corrupt legislators have been bribed. Many lobbyists meet with legislators and present their points for their positions.

The New York circa 1972 and prior had a history of hiring legislative staffers who perform no work. This is done to reward political workers who helped elect legislators. Political leaders often favor candidates who will then deliver no show jobs for them to offer. Sometimes former legislators are hired for no show jobs. This sometimes happens when a former legislator needs some additional time of employment to qualify for a pension.

Berle notes the saying that "only fools, millionaires, or thieves can afford to be assemblymen." Legislative pay is small for part time employment.

Berle encourages citizens to become more informed on issues and to become more involved politically. This can lead to positive reforms of the legislative process.

Berle recommends announcing bills for legislative votes a week before the votes. He also believes legislators should be physically present in order to vote. He also advocated changing the committee membership of a 2 to 1 majority to minority distribution to one that increased minority representation. He further believes both caucuses should have professional staff. He argued for committees retaining jurisdiction over bills through the entire system. That would reduce the Speaker's powers.

Berle argues for also reducing the Governor's powers. A professional legislative staff could be a check on the Governor.

New York then required candidates to report contributions, but there were no enforcement. Berle also support lobbying disclosure laws.


Post a Comment

<< Home