"Reforming Albany" was the topic of a lively and thoughtful discussion jointly sponsored by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Port Washington-Manhasset and Great Neck. Co-sponsors included the American Association of University Women (AAUW)-North Shore Branch, and the LWVs of New York State, Nassau County, New York City, and Suffolk County. Panelists were Jeremy Creelan, associate counsel, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law; Blair Horner, legislative director of NYPIRG; Michael Gianaris, New York State Assembly member from Queens; and Thomas Suozzi, Nassau County Executive. They informed the attendees about the current efforts to reform the New York State Legislature, which various panelists referred to as "a mess," "in shambles," "out of control," "broken," "dismal," and "dysfunctional." The panel was ably moderated by Howard Glickstein, dean emeritus and professor of law at Touro School of Law and a longtime civil rights advocate. He introduced the discussion by saying, "Reforming Albany could not be more relevant or important. As I looked at the materials provided by the other panelists [copies of which were provided to all attendees], I experienced surprise and sometimes outrage that the most progressive state in the country has such a dysfunctional government." He added, presumably tongue-in-cheek, "Maybe we should bring in the national guard from Iraq to restore democracy to New York State government."
Jeremy Creeland, the first speaker, is co-author (with Laura Moulton) of a report entitled "The New York State Legislative Process: An Evaluation and Blueprint for Action," which Glickstein described as "a bible for change - a road map to reform." The report identifies dysfunctions in five areas and recommends rule changes in each one. The five areas are: dysfunctional legislative committees; barriers to consideration of legislation by the full senate or assembly; no debate, no amendments, and inadequate review; few conference committees; and legislative inefficiency and high costs. Creeland cited as an example a bill in Albany on wetlands preservation. The bill passed the assembly both years. The governor expressed support, as did 49 out of 62 senators. Nevertheless, the bill could not get to the senate floor because it was blocked by the Senate rules committee, which decides whether a bill moves on to the floor.
He expressed a sense of frustration about the efforts to reform Albany, and encouraged the LWV to "redouble" its efforts in the coming months. He pointed out that it is not the "usual suspects" who are pushing reform, and it is therefore essential to get those involved who do not normally focus on how government works; for example, business, labor, and the environmental and social services community. He said, "We need to get them focused and keep them focused.... We still have a long way to go."
Blair Horner, who has worked with NYPIRG for 25 years and received numerous awards, said that one of the major things that is wrong with state government is excessive secrecy. "Secrecy creates a breeding ground for corruption," he said, mentioning that recently two members of the legislature went to jail, as well as did a former labor commissioner. The second major problem, he said, is lack of competitive elections. He said, "The elections are rigged by the two major parties so that the legislative majorities are the permanent ruling class." Horner recommended creating a "transparent and competitive" government, which would require campaign financing reform, prohibition of gifts by lobbyists, redistricting, a government that lives up to the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act (often referred to as FOIL), and a board of elections that enforces the law. He said, "This does not require a constitutional convention. There is no reason to wait. I believe that 2006 will see a transformation in our state government. It is time to focus on corruption-busting and competitive democracy."
Horner provided a handout listing 10 steps that lawmakers can take to change Albany. He predicted that some will pass this year, and that others will be on the agenda for next year.
Assembly member Mike Gianaris has issued a proposal for reforming the legislative process that the New York Times called "the real key to reform." He pointed out that some things have changed, most notably; the state government did get the budget out on time this year for the first time in many, many years. Ginaris, like the other panelists, considers the lack of genuinely competitive elections as a major stumbling block to reform. He said, "In the 2004 elections, 25 percent of the incumbents were re-elected without any opposition. There is no way that the legislators can be responsive if they have no effective competition." Gianaris' proposal calls, among other things, for redistricting to be done by an independent commission, rather than by the legislature, which, he said, "can draw lines to favor or not a party or an individual."
Gianaris commented, "It is not going to be easy. It takes a real effort. Hopefully in the next few years we will be able to make some changes."
County Executive Tom Suozzi, who has embarked on what he deems the "Fix Albany" initiative, said, "We have the most dysfunctional legislature in the United States of America." He linked the high property taxes in Nassau County to the problems in Albany.
Suozzi emphasized, as did the other speakers, the lack of competitive elections for the State legislature. He said, "In the past 20 years, comprising about 25,000 elections, only 34 legislators have failed to be re-elected. Almost all of the problems that you are looking at at the local level can be related to this issue." Suozzi pointed out that there is little motivation for the legislators to tackle tough issues like health care and MTA and rising fares if there is no concern about being re-elected. He added, "Democracy doesn't work unless there is competition."
Suozzi was optimistic that we have reached "the tipping point" (referring to the recent book of the same name)-that people are ready for change. He said that it requires two types of individuals-the "mavens" (the experts on the subject) and the networkers and connectors who bring all the parties together. As an example, he mentioned the county executives bringing the message about Medicaid to Albany. "It worked," he said. "We need to do that again,"
He concluded, "There is a relationship between high taxes and the mess in Albany. We need to build a coalition of people who will get the message out. There are not a lot of people who care about this stuff. You are very special people for being here."