Testimony to the NYS Senate Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform

Testimony to Temporary Senate Committee on Rules and Administration Reform on Improving the State Senate’s Legislative Process by Reforming its Rules and Administration
February 26, 2009

Good evening Co-Chairs Bonacic and Valesky and other members of the Temporary Senate Committee on Rules and Administration Reform.  My name is Rachael Fauss, the Policy
and Research Associate for Citizens Union of the City of New York.  Citizens Union is an independent, nonpartisan, civic organization of New Yorkers who promote good government and advance political reform in our city and state.  For more than a century, Citizens Union has served as a watchdog for the public interest and an advocate for the common good.  I thank you for holding this hearing and giving me the opportunity to present Citizens Union’s views on this important topic.

Citizens Union commends Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith for taking some important first steps towards greater legislative rules reform through measures such as allowing debate for motions to discharge to be considered more quickly after the request is initiated and allowing for more open sponsorship of bills.  We also applaud Majority Leader Smith for establishing this diverse temporary committee to evaluate and assess the need for further rules reform, including through public hearings such as today’s, and requiring the Committee to report back to the Temporary President of the Senate and the Minority Leader of the Senate by April 7th, which is shortly after the budget will likely be finalized and the substantive legislative process will commence.

Citizens Union is concerned about the need to open up the state legislative process and allow for greater democratic participation from all members of the legislature while having rules in place that allow the majority to rule effectively and the minority to participate meaningfully.  We are cognizant, for example, that in proposing substantive rules reform, the legislative houses must be able to continue to act as a check on the powers of a strong Executive.  Citizens Union believes that overall, however, the legislative process must be substantially more transparent and accountable to rank-and-file members, as well as the public, to ensure a more deliberative system that is more inclusive and open. In addition to taking simple and small steps like webcasting legislative hearings and providing testimony and transcripts of hearings online, Citizens Union proposes that the Senate adopt the following rules reforms:

1.    Allocate baseline resources to each member, including allocation of member items.  Citizens Union applauds Majority Leader Smith for his initial commitment to provide each member, without regard to party, with a base budget of $350,000.  We urge Senator Smith to keep his promise to allocate similar resources to each legislator to ensure that all members are able to efficiently and appropriately address their constituents’ needs on an equal funding basis, especially since legislators represent about the same number of constituents.  We do recognize, however, that some differences in resource allocation may be necessary to reflect among other things rent differences between rural and urban areas and staffing needs for more senior legislators.  

2.    Reinvigorate legislative committees with greater independence and more transparency.  The committee process should be more democratic and participatory.  For example, rank-and-file members should elect committee chairs in conference.  We also believe that committee chairs should be given greater authority to set committee agendas and establish priorities taking into consideration the bills pending before the committee and timely policy issues.  Chairs should also be more involved in the hiring of committee staff.  Lastly, we urge you to reform the public hearing process.  We recommend that chairs or a certain number of committee members acting together should be able to call needed hearings on issues and bills under their consideration.  Moreover, the public should have a greater opportunity to comment on legislation and important policy issues through the holding of many more public hearings.  

3.    Require that all legislation reported to the floor be accompanied by a public committee report, including a fiscal impact statement for bills that involve funding.  Legislators must have sufficient information at their disposal when they are considering legislation in order to ensure that they are knowledgeable about the legislation and voting responsibly – otherwise it undermines the integrity of the legislative process.  Detailed committee reports, similar to those prepared at the New York city council, outlining at the minimum the purpose and intentions of the bill, proposed amendments to the law and the procedural history, along with the potential fiscal impact for bills involving State funding, would substantially increase members’ knowledge of legislation under consideration in addition to the current sponsors memos required for bills.  Citizens Union believes that while the current sponsors’ memos contain some of this information, these memos often serve more as persuasive documents rather than providing the much-needed substantive analysis and underlying rationale for the legislation.  We believe that these committee reports should also include comprehensive policy analysis, including mention of similar legislation in other jurisdictions, as well as the proposed legislation’s effect on relevant governmental entities.  Making such reports publicly available will also ensure that the public is aware of the Legislature’s actions and allow for meaningful public scrutiny of the sufficiency of the legislative findings and justification for legislative action.

4.    Require Senate Committee members to be physically present in order to vote in Committee.   Citizens Union believes that the current practice of allowing Senators to “mail-in” their votes undermines the integrity of the legislative process.  Similar to the requirement for in-seat voting in committee for Assemblymembers, we believe that Senators should be required to vote while in their seats during committee meetings.  This reform would ensure that Senators are better informed about pending legislation before voting and more engaged in representing the interests of their citizens.  Citizens Union does not support, however, requiring Senators to be physically present for all full votes of the Senate.  The experience of requiring in-seat voting in the Assembly has demonstrated that this requirement can detract from important constituent work.  We believe that the current requirement that Senators be physically present in their seats for all votes on bills on the controversial calendar, as well as the exception of allowing Senators to cast votes later in the day for roll-call votes if required to attend other official duties such as hearings, strikes a more appropriate balance in achieving engagement with legislation as well as constituents.

5.    Minimize duplication of substantially similar legislation.  As reported by the Brennan Center for Justice, New York leads the nation in the number of bills introduced which do not substantially advance through the legislative process.  While we recognize and appreciate that individual legislators take the initiative on advancing legislation to address the needs of their constituents, Citizens Union believes that the process would be much more efficient if legislators were only allowed to introduce legislation that has not already been introduced in substantially similar form.  It would be much more constructive to the legislative process for bills to be amended after their introduction with input from other legislators, and for other Senators to instead cosponsor the same bill, rather than advancing several similar bills at the same time.  

6.    Limit the use of “messages of necessity.”  Citizens Union acknowledges that in recent sessions the use of messages of necessity has declined, but we continue to believe that further reform is necessary, particularly during the budget process when complex budget bills are under consideration. Using an undue number of messages of necessity prevents necessary review of bills by legislators and the public, which severely hinders a deliberative legislative process.  Circumventing the bill aging requirement via messages of necessity should only be used in limited circumstances.  

7.    Prohibit public-funded legislative mailings within ninety days of an election.  Legislative mailings should not be sent by legislators in the ninety days prior to an election, except for mailings regarding the state budget in the event that the adoption of the budget is substantially delayed.  These publicly-funded mailings in close proximity to the election could be seen as government sanctioned campaign materials.  Moreover allowing incumbent candidates to spend taxpayer dollars in this way creates an advantage to incumbents that Citizen Union believes is inappropriate.  Citizens Union has consistently called for reforms to ensure that elections are substantially more competitive and this would be progress towards that goal.

Citizens Union strongly supports the efforts made thus far to improve the Senate’s internal operations.  We urge you, however, to seize this opportunity to institute the additional reforms outlined above, as well as other potential reforms, to ensure that New Yorkers can have greater faith in the legislative process and the ability of the Legislators to act efficiently, effectively and knowledgeably to advance their constituents’ interests.  We would welcome the opportunity to discuss these and other rules reform proposals with you in greater detail at your convenience.

Co-Chairs Bonancic and Valesky and other members of the Temporary Rules Reform Committee, Citizens Union again thanks you for holding this important hearing and for making it possible for us to express our views.