The Reformers

Thanks in large part to Valley legislators- and a hotly contested election in Westchester- government in Albany is getting a much-needed makeover.



The Reformers

 

At last, headway is being  made in improving government in Albany, and Valley legislators are taking the lead

 

by Yancey Roy

 

Last year, New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice concluded that the New York State legislature was the “most dysfunctional” in the nation. This putdown became a rallying cry for challengers in last year’s state senate and assembly elections. One group even launched a Web site, fixalbany.com, which channeled campaign contributions to promising challengers.

 

Although only a handful of incumbents ultimately lost to reform candidates, the clamor to “fix Albany” had an impact. After last fall’s elections, state legislators promised this would be the year of reform at the Capitol.

 

And they delivered, at least in part. Lawmakers closed ethics loopholes, improved lobbying oversight and Freedom of Information laws, computerized campaign-finance records, and passed a measure aimed at ensuring a timely budget. They also ended a practice called “empty seat voting,” and agreed to televise senate and assembly sessions (creating a state version of C-Span). “That’s normally the amount of reform they do in someone’s lifetime,” says Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group and a frequent critic of the political process in Albany.

 

“We really did a lot,” agrees Assemblywoman Sandra Galef (D-Ossining, Westchester), often a voice for reform at the Capitol. “There was a lot more member involvement. The leadership was not coming around asking me to do things. People were here, actively involved in debates… I’ve never felt so good.”

 

In many instances, the push for reform came from Hudson Valley legislators. For instance, Galef sponsored a bill — now law — that forces county election boards to track campaign contributions electronically. This allows the state board of elections to monitor donation-limit violations by corporations or individuals. (More than 200 companies surpassed the $5,000 annual limit in the 2002 elections.) It also gives the public access to more information about who is bankrolling campaigns.

 

“I must have introduced this five or six years ago. I thought it was dead,” Galef says. “But it came out as one of the most important campaign reforms of the year.”

Tackling the biggest example of Albany gridlock, lawmakers met the April 1 state budget deadline for the first time since 1984. They also passed a measure that would kick in a contingency budget if the deadline is missed. (That change requires voter approval in November.)

 

The senate and assembly changed some of the rules governing activities in the two chambers. Most notably, the Democrat-led assembly ended “empty seat” voting, a practice in which a member automatically is recorded as voting “yes” on every bill unless he (or she) returns to his desk to push the “no” button.

 

Among other changes, legislators agreed to:

           Close a loophole that allows state employees to avoid ethics investigations by quitting their jobs, a practice that has short-circuited more than 50 ethics cases in the last decade. The law was expanded to include legislators and legislative staff.

            Monitor lobbying for government contracts, a lucrative practice that currently goes unregulated. Under the bill, which Governor Pataki has said he’ll sign, lobbyists will have to report their activities and how much they spend.

           Create an independent inspector general to help oversee public authorities.

 

Several of these agencies, which include the Thruway Authority and Metropolitan Transportation Authority, have recently been involved in a number of high-profile scandals involving bribery, bid rigging, and taxpayer-funded personal trips. Two Valley legislators — Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D-Greenburgh, Westchester) and Senator Vincent Leibell (R-Patterson, Putnam) — were behind this overhaul, which backers say should shine some much-needed light on what is often called New York’s “shadow government”: the more than 700 authorities that oversee everything from mass transit and roads to housing and dam releases.

 

Governor Pataki, who controls the authorities by appointing their board members, was seen as largely opposed to sweeping changes. But by the last day of the legislative session, he and the Republican-controlled senate reached a compromise with the Democrats. Brodsky says Democrats got most of what they wanted: restrictions on lobbying for contracts; new rules for selling or disposing of authority property; and new guidelines for authority board members. The concessions: the governor has appointment power over the new authorities budget office (created to monitor finances) and the inspector general, who will investigate authority wrongdoing. Leibell calls this “one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation this session.”

 

“The days of these immune, silent, powerful bureaucracies doing damn well what they want are over,” adds Brodsky.

 

Meanwhile, a group of Westchester County assembly members was making a strong push to strengthen the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). The ad hoc group said they were motivated by this year’s “Sunshine Week,” during which newspapers across the state published stories outlining shortcomings in the law.

 

The lawmakers concluded that FOIL needed more teeth. Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Rye, Westchester) sponsored a bill requiring governments to make records available electronically, instead of making photocopies and mailing them. “I’m sure there are lots of governments that like to delay,” says Latimer. “They say, ‘Oh, maybe we have it.’ Or, ‘Oh, it’s 150 pages and it will cost you 25 cents a page.’ ”

 

 

Although the assembly passed Latimer’s measure, the senate never acted on it. In fact, most of the FOIL package didn’t make it through the full legislature, but backers say they’ll return to the issue next year.

 

One FOIL bill that was passed and signed into law forces state and local agencies to follow a timetable with regard to answering requests for information. Previously, agencies merely had to acknowledge an information request, but were not required to supply an answer in a timely manner. This bill was cosponsored by Senator Nicholas Spano (R-Yonkers).

 

Spano admits that some of his interest in reform is a result of his razor-thin reelection victory last November. An 18-year incumbent, he was considered the third most powerful state senator, someone who could deliver perks to his home district. After numerous recounts and court challenges, he was reelected by just 18 votes over Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat who made Albany reform the focus of her campaign, effectively painting Spano as a creature of the system.

 

“In Westchester, people sent a message, especially in my race, that they weren’t happy with business in Albany,” admits Spano. Other incumbents, he continues, “looked at my race and said, ‘That could happen to me.’ ”

 

To be sure, politicians avoided two of the core reform issues: the campaign-finance system and the process for drawing legislative election districts. Nonetheless, most agreed it was a year of progress. “The reforms passed this session are laudable — lawmakers should be proud of them,” says the Brennan Center’s Jeremy Creelan. Latimer had a more guarded assessment: “I wouldn’t open up a bottle of champagne yet. We made some good first steps. But whether we continue forward, that’s going to be the test.” ■

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