November 21, 2004

Senate reform report even less than expected

I didn't expect very much when I wrote earlier about the Senate Majority Task Force on Reform's "Making Government Work: A Preliminary Report of the Senate Task Force on Government Reform" (65KB PDF), but I'm afraid that actually reading the report proved even more disappointing than I'd thought possible.

Earlier, I'd mentioned the report's self-congratulatory tone, but it's remarkable how that tone continues throughout the entire piece. Early in the report, they write:

The Senate Task Force on Government Reform not only will examine reforms of the legislative process, but also will study additional aspects of government dysfunction.

Ironically, they never look at their own process in the document. There is no description here of how Senate process works or how it might be improved. All of the examples given describe how the Senate works with other parts of state government, with a very brief moment on page 14 when they praise themselves because:

In 2001, Senator Bruno authorized live, continuous televised coverage of Senate sessions, allowing citizens to watch proceedings as they happen over the Internet and on cable television public access broadcasts throughout New York...

The Senate has virtually made late-night and all-night sessions a thing of the past, and has made a deliberate effort to start sessions on time...

Beginning in 1995, the Senate lowered spending for its own operations, reducing the number of Senate staff by 357 employees, closing 20 satellite offices, restricting travel, and limiting newsletters and other legislative mailing expenses....

Twice each year, the Senate releases detailed expenditure reports to allow the public to track spending by Senate member and office.

That's all the legislative reform substance I can find here, and it's not very much. The document does talk about conference committees, which would be great if they weren't called by the leadership, and Bruno's pet subject of a unicameral legislature also appears. There's no discussion whatsoever of the control the Majority Leader has over the process, members, and spending of the Senate, no mention of the borrowed slush funds he can allocate to members who please him, and no mention of the gerrymandering that keeps incumbents mostly in place.

The rest of the report is a ramble through whatever the Republican Senate would like to call reform:

  • budget reform proposals (vetoed by the governor)
  • 3 pages of voter referendums from other states, a model the Senate would like to see in New York
  • brief consideration of a constitutional convention that makes it sound hopeless
  • the much-needed 1999 lobbying reforms, plus Senate suggestions for further ones
  • the Senate's version of Medicaid reform (which has no matching Assembly bill)
  • Public Authority reform (S.7292-A, stuck in the Senate's own Rules Committee!)
  • Complaining about the cost of local governments
  • An optimistic history of reform in the Senate since 1985, starting with a proposal by current Majority Leader Bruno.

There's a very brief mention near the very beginning that acknowledges:

In addition to late budgets, critics of New York state government have focused on other aspects of legislative and government operations. Notably, one recent study analyzed the role of Senate and Assembly committees in reshaping and deliberating legislative issues prior to their moving to the floor for enactment.

This token mention of the Brennan Center report is about the only thing in this report that so much as suggests interest in changing how the Senate actually operates.

Calling this a sham report is far too kind. It's an extended excuse for doing nothing as usual. A preliminary report that meant something might have actually examined how the Senate operates, what might need change, and how those changes would interact with other parts of state government. Instead, it's a cheerful list of how so much has already been done, no matter how trivial the result. It doesn't give me much reason to believe Senator Seward's claim at Dryden Village Hall last month that "the word has reached the capital loud and clear."

Posted by simon at November 21, 2004 6:11 PM in
Note on photos