Officially The Worst In The Nation: The NYS Legislature
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
For quite a number of years, the Queens Tribune has published its “Best of Queens” annual filled with the rosier side of the borough, sharing your views and ours as to the unofficial “Best” in New York City’s Best Borough.
The Special Edition has grown in popularity since first conceived way back before the Trib pioneered wrapping special issues with glossy covers and led the industry to “stitch”, or staple, them, making the special edition a hybrid between a newspaper and magazine. We take credit for those innovations – stitched on glossy cover – first seen 15 years ago in celebration of the Tribune’s 20th anniversary. Our concept of the “newspaper special” has truly changed our industry.
This year, the Tribune has taken the special concept monthly and this week offers our annual “Best of Queens.”
And for quite some time, I’ve been writing in my column, my personal introduction to the “Best of” special. I’ve shared my views of the best Queens has to offer. It always is a light-hearted romp through the fun-filled side of life and like my daughter Allison would likely insist, “it’s tradition,” so I have to keep it going.
Not this year.
While the bests dance in my mind’s eye, the worst pounds my brain. And this year, to introduce this light-hearted, fun volume, I’m going to be dead serious. Faced with the further deterioration of the New York State legislature – the worst in this country – I cannot see the bests through the dark cloud shrouding the State.
This column, quite sometime ago, labeled the New York State legislature the 50th best in the nation – read worst. Going back to 1999, when Democratic Speaker Sheldon Silver in a botched political sham, led the Democratic Assembly off the metaphorical cliff to repeal of the New York City Commuter Tax, costing us close to half a billion dollars annually, we have been unyielding in our criticism.
This year, when the Legislature failed to pass an on-time budget for the twentieth year in a row, failed to adopt a court-ordered funding correction for New York City Schools, failed to even explain ignoring the City’s request for a $400 property tax rebate, we turned up the heat.
Thankfully, others have chimed in.
But we take pride that it was on this page where you first read the the NYS Legislature was the worst in the entire country. It was the unofficial mantra of this column for quite some time when we discussed State Government. The column has been handed out in Albany, reprinted online, and quoted on television. I take pride in first naming the New York State Legislature as the nation’s worst.
Two weeks ago explaining that mantra, I wrote:
“I have frequently referred to the NYS Legislature as the 50th best in the nation . . . My research indicates that no state can even approach our state’s record of failure to produce an on-time budget.
Although I really do not have the expertise to evaluate the performance of the other 49 states, I have been unable to find any that appears to be as dysfunctional as New York’s.”
This week, it became official. The Schenkler mantra has been given the good government seal of approval.
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law – named for the late Supreme Court justice William Brennan – released a 108-page report that documents and concludes that New York State’s legislative process is the most dysfunctional in the nation.
According to the Brennan Center, “New York’s legislative process more systematically excludes rank-and-file lawmakers and the public from that process than any other state legislature.” The findings are based on data developed through analysis of all ‘major’ laws enacted in New York from 1997 through 2001, interviews with legislators and staff, and a national telephone survey of other states.
The report, The New York State Legislative Process: An Evaluation and Blueprint for Reform, states that:
From 1997 to 2001, fewer than 5% of the major bills passed were debated on the floor of the chambers.
From 1997 to 2001, 0.5% of the major bills passed in the Assembly and 0.7% in the Senate received a committee hearing devoted to their consideration.
From 1997 to 2001, of the 7,109 bills voted upon by the Senate and the 7,365 bills voted upon by the Assembly, not a single bill was voted down by either house.
New York’s is the only legislature that routinely allows “empty seat” voting, enabling absent legislators’ votes to be recorded as an affirmative to pass a bill.
The report concludes that change in Albany is essential in order to make the legislature more faithful in its representation, more deliberative and effective in its exercise of power, more accessible and accountable to voters and more efficient in its legislative work.
Indeed, it offers a blueprint for reform.
To those legislators who have been critical of this column and have attempted to justify their failure, the Institute offers some concrete measures essential to begin the process of fixing what is badly broken.
But Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate Leader Joe Bruno and now, in a letter responding to my column which can be read below, Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette, Dean of the Queens delegation, continue trying to justify their performance.
Lafayette tells us and the New York Times, “unless you have held a legislative office, and have had this experience you cannot, at all, understand the process.”
Ivan my friend, it sounds like you not only want to quiet the journalists, but also take the vote away from the people. Your “deals” every 10 years redistricting yourselves, reinforces your attempt to make your legislative body immune to the people’s will, the press or anyone.
Sorry Ivan, it’s the people’s process, not yours – and we all can understand what’s going on.
In Ivan’s world, only “experienced legislators like Shelly and Joe (and maybe Ivan) would have votes.
Ivan, I assure you, the rest of us don’t see it that way.
Welcome to America.
Assemblyman Lafayette Responds To Not For Publication
This letter from Assemblyman Ivan Lafayetter was recieved in response to my columns criticizing the State Legislature.
To the Editor:
In response to the series of inflammatory statements you have made in your column (i.e. “Shoot Them All”), I feel compelled to comment to you about them. New York is a very complex State with different constituencies, many of whom have different needs, all of which have to be taken into account when the Legislature makes any determination. This makes our job as legislators extremely challenging.
Michael, it would be a great thing to see you run for office, get elected, serve a community and state with 213 other people who have different priorities than you. I think you believe this is a simple task. It is not. It takes experience and understanding of a very complex system, and you learn from your mistakes. It is easy to say from afar we must pass an on-time budget, but we need to make sure the budget we do pass ensures quality education, health care, addresses transportation need, protects our senior citizens and our environment, etc.
The Speaker of the Democratic Majority of the Assembly has to manage 103 strong-minded Democrats and contend with the Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and a Republican governor. He has to make decisions and use every means to ensure that our Democratic principals move forward. Without the solidarity among the Assembly Democratic Majority, many of whom have different philosophies, we would not have achieved the many successes that even you would have to believe to be important. These successes include rent stabilization, universal pre-kindergarten, empire business zones, the child health and family health plus programs, the EPIC program, homeowner caps on increase in taxation and so on. All these were achieved through forceful and lengthy debates within the context of the budget. You have come to the determination that the budget process is always delayed and a waste of time, but I believe the record speaks for itself. Our democratic principles have been a good thing for the people of New York City and the rest of the state, and the delays were worthwhile.
Before a determination is made, legislators have countless meetings with each other and with leadership on how certain issues affect the people we represent and how we feel they will affect New York State as a whole. We also do this through the committee process, in our Democratic Conferences, and we meet with the Speaker, either individually or as part of a delegation or caucus.
We take good care in making sure what in the law or in the budget is beneficial, or at least not harmful, to the people we represent. I take great pride each year in the number of advances we make for the people of New York State. If this takes more time, it is not because of laziness or dereliction but because of the great concern we have for the people we represent.
As you look back throughout the years you will see that we have never really had an on-time budget. In the days when I was first elected, we passed a budget on April 1st. We then had to borrow five billion dollars to make initial payments to school districts and over the next few months we would continue to work on the budget. Usually in June we would then pass a contingency budget, which took care of the other needs in New York State. Then, later that Fall, we would pass a deficiency budget to correct any discrepancies from the budget passed earlier in the year. Even though we did in fact pass an “on-time” budget it still was a year-round process.
This year has a different nuance. A court decision has ordered us to provide adequate funding for all children in New York City. Despite the fact that the court identified that there were inadequate resources for children, they did not specify how much money is needed to correctly address the problem. Unfortunately, the Governor has refused to take part in these discussions until very recently. I do not believe we should pass a budget until we reach a decision that will ensure our children have the resources they deserve.
You talk about a late budget, but how are you affected by it and by the late federal budget every year? After you look at the entire year and see the results, even you would not be able to complain about our vast accomplishments.
Even if New York City was united in the Assembly we still would not have a majority in our own conference and continue to push for the ideals of the Democratic party. We must remain united in our principles, or the people of the city and state will suffer.
I’ll repeat, unless you have held a legislative office and have had this experience you cannot, at all, understand the process.
This also applies to the New York Times reporter who spent a few hours in Albany and wrote a similar erroneous article likes yours.
Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette, Dean of the Queens Delegation
Not4Publication.com by Dom Nunziato