Brennan Center: Albany’s “Still Broken”


NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice just published an update of the famous 2004 report that described in excruciatingly precise detail just how deeply lousy New York State government has become. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet but the title of the 2008 edition pretty much sums it up: "Still Broken."

The New York Times editorializes this morning:

New York’s government is still a secretive, boss-driven,
anti-democratic disgrace…. Legislative leaders, especially Assembly Speaker Sheldon
Silver, have had “a stranglehold on the flow of legislation at all
stages of the legislative process.” Most members have little say. Committees are run like shadow puppet theaters. Details about
legislation are hard for the public to get, unless they subscribe to a
bill-drafting service for $2,250 a year.

After the jump, some bullet-pointed lowlights from the report

  • In both chambers, but especially in
    the Assembly, leadership maintained a stranglehold on the flow of
    legislation at all stages of the legislative process.
  • Committee meetings were infrequent in
    both chambers and sparsely attended in the Senate, where members can
    vote without being physically present.
  • Most standing committees in both chambers failed to hold any hearings on major legislation.
  • There were no detailed committee
    reports attached to major bills in the Senate, and the Assembly rules
    do not require substantive reports to accompany bills reported out of
  • Legislators introduced an
    extraordinary number of bills in both houses during each session, while
    only a small percentage received a floor vote.
  • 100% of the bills that leadership allowed to reach the floor of either chamber for a vote passed with almost no debate.
  • Senate records indicate that many of
    the bills that received a floor vote lacked critical and required
    information about their fiscal impact, usually passing the full chamber
    without any meaningful debate or dissent.
  • The use of conference committees to
    reconcile similar bills in each chamber remained the exceedingly rare
    exception, rather than the rule.
  • Member resources were distributed inequitably in both chambers on the basis of party, loyalty and seniority.
  • Much of the legislative process
    remains opaque; records are difficult to obtain without burdensome
    "freedom of information" requests, and key records of deliberation-such
    as "no" votes on procedural motions in the Senate-are not maintained.

  • oscar

    honestly, what can be done to change this?
    im so sick of hearing how broken albany is, and how shelly silver has all this power, but they keep electing the scumbag back in

  • The only thing that might (and I said might) jar the state legislature toward reform would be a prolonged and relentless series of investigative stories in a high-profile publication like the NY Times. It would have to be effective enough to result in several high-profile prosecutions and surprise upsets at the polls. Over to you, Grey Lady.

  • Rhywun

    Term limits? Like we have in the ci-… oh.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The only thing that might (and I said might) jar the state legislature toward reform would be a prolonged and relentless series of investigative stories in a high-profile publication like the NY Times.”

    Already done, no effect.

    First of all, I don’t agree with the word “dysfuncional.” The function of Albany has been to continue to hold power while siphoning off as much of our future as possible to benefit privileged interests who are cashing in and moving out, and leave the state in ruins. It does this spendidly by hiding the consequences of what they have done as long as possible, and preventing competitive elections.

    I really now believe the end result will be an institutional collapse — no viable schools, no viable transit, wipespread tax fraud in an effort to avoid paying for nothing but debts and pensions, etc. Frustration with long years of trying to support and save the system, or even point out that it needs saving, have led me to that conclusion. Even if change were to arrive, so much damage has been done.

  • Rhywun

    Larry, your “end result” is pretty much the current condition in upstate cities like Buffalo and Rochester. They are completely and utterly destroyed. I grew up in one, went to college in the other, and could not wait to escape the despair. And that was 15 years ago. I can only imagine what it’s like today.

  • I recently posted the following on my blog. It describes action that can be taken to force Albany to change. There is too much talk and not enough action!

    There are 150 members of the New York State Assembly and 62 Senators. There are 19 million of us. They are seriously outnumbered.

    How do you force the politicians in Albany to reform a rotten system that benefits them at the expense of the people of New York? The perception is that the government in New York state is corrupt, unethical, and dishonest, and that nothing can be done. That’s just the way it is and nobody can change it. It’s politics as usual.

    I disagree. We can fix Albany. It is not an impossible task. A serious ethics law is the first step. No meaningful reform will come out of Albany until a real ethics law is passed. Everything else will flow from that. Here is how we can force them to enact a serious ethics law.

    Common Cause or the League of Women Voters should write an ethics law for the New York Assembly and Senate. It should be written in plain English so that a fifth grader can read and understand it.

    It should be published in all of the daily newspapers in New York state on the same day. That is important. It should take up the entire page. It should be published on their websites as well. At the bottom of the document leave a space for every member of the Assembly and Senate to sign it.

    It would be like the signatures on the Declaration of Independence. If the signature isn’t legible, print the name too. This will take ethics reform out of the State Capitol in Albany and put it in front of the public in plain view.

    The newspapers should also publish the phone numbers, email, and postal addresses of each member of the legislature. The newspapers should ask each reader to contact their representatives and demand that they sign the new ethics law as published in the paper.

    The League of Women Voters or Common Cause would be the main contact point for the legislators. They would have to send a letter saying that they supported the ethics law and to please sign their name to it so that their constituents could see it.

    This document would be updated every day with the new signatures on the websites of the newspapers until there are enough signatures to make it a law. You would be able to see on a daily basis who supported it and who didn’t support it.

    This should shame the politicians into doing the right thing, since they won’t do it themselves. Voters will be looking for the names of their representatives. If voters don’t see their names, they can call them and find out why. If not enough signatures are obtained after 30 days, proceed to step two.

    Step 2 would be a daily protest at the State Capitol in Albany. A hundred people a day would do. This would go on every day while the legislature is in session.

    If there are still not enough signatures and the legislature goes home, proceed to step three.

    Step 3 would be several protesters following each individual legislator 24 hours a day until they sign the document. Everywhere the legislator went, there would be protesters with signs following them.

    Eventually, there will be enough signatures. Someone will have to introduce a bill to make the ethics law a real, legal law that the Assembly and Senate must obey or face the consequences. The first person to step up and sign the ethics law in the newspaper should have the privilege of introducing the bill.

    After the ethics bill becomes a law, the members of the Assembly and Senate should have to take an oath and proclaim that they have read it, understand it and will act accordingly.

    There has got to be a way to reform the politicians in Albany. Business as usual is killing this state. The citizens of New York are being cheated everyday.

    Paul Krugman, the Pulitzer Prize winning economist from Princeton University and a New York Times columnist, said on the Bill Maher show last September, “We need a better government than we’ve got.”

    He was talking about the federal government in Washington, D.C., but you can apply it to New York state government just as easily.

    We need a better government than we’ve got and we need it now.

    I sent the post above to Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. Albany is not going to reform itself. We have to force them to change.


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