NYU slams state Legislature as dysfunctional

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The sessions were held the same week as the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University released the voluminous report, which blasted the Legislature for defrauding taxpayers with ineffectual committees, autocratic and all-powerful leadership and legislative inefficiency.

"New York state's legislative process is broken," the report said. "Together, the problems here deprive New Yorkers of the government they deserve."

The study found that New York state's lawmakers introduced in excess of 16,000 bills in 2002, more than any other state. Yet just 4.1 percent of the pieces of legislation were enacted.

Gov. George Pataki called the "extraordinary sessions" in Albany last week in hopes of finding a way to reform the public school funding formula across the state. The state is under a mandate to find a new method of allocating funds after an Appeals Court judge ruled in the lawsuit known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity that the formula was shortchanging students in many urban areas in the state, particularly New York City, where the case originated.

If the state does not reach an accord by the July 30 deadline, a special master will be appointed to tackle the problem.

The Assembly met for 15 minutes last Thursday, enough time for the education committee to reject Pataki's plan for reform. The governor put forth a proposal in May that would bring $2.2 billion in new spending for city schools and rely on increased revenues from gambling, particularly video lottery terminals, ATM-like machines that let people wager on card and other games, to cover the costs.

"The education committee voted not to let the governor's legislation out of committee," said Assemblywoman Vivian Cook (D-South Ozone Park), meaning the full Assembly did not even get to vote on the plan.

"Unfortunately, it was more a show on the part of the governor," said Assemblyman William Scarborough (D-St. Albans). "What he presented did not represent a substantial movement from the previous plan. There was nothing new there."

The state Senate met for three days last week and the Republican-controlled body did approve a plan that combined Pataki's proposal and the one the Senate leadership released in May, said state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose). The Senate Republican plan initially called for $2.83 billion in additional school aid to the city and also used revenues from the gambling terminals.

The new agreement did increase the amount of funds that would come to the city, but Democrats criticized it for not meeting the court-mandated requirements, said state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone).

"There ought to have been a number of ingredients that were not there," she said.

Missing components included a regional cost differential that would look at the price per student in varying areas of the state and a revision of the complicated formula by which funding is decided to allow schools and communities to know how much money to expect, Stavisky said.

"There should be transparency," she said. "People should be able to understand the formula."

But with the deadline fast approaching, it seemed unlikely Tuesday that an agreement would be reached.

"The Assembly leaders and members are at the convention in Boston," Padavan said referring to members of the Democrat-controlled body attending the Democratic Nominating Convention. "They're not around to discuss it."

A special master will likely be appointed to take over the funding reform the first week in August.

"The fact that it's going to the courts is very unfortunate," Stavisky said. "The Constitution states that the Legislature shall provide for a system of free common schools. We've abdicated our responsibility."

The failure came on the heels of the Brennan Center for Justice report, which found that the state has failed to pass a budget on time for 20 years in a row and just 4.1 percent of the bills that are introduced are passed.

The passage rate in the Senate may be a result of the control the GOP leadership exerts, Stavisky said.

"The bill is not voted out of committee if it's not going to pass," she said. "There have been few issues where the outcome of the vote was not determined before the vote."

Stavisky also complained of a lack of informational hearings and research reports to accompany bills.

The report criticized "empty-seat voting," when legislators miss votes due to conflicting meetings and have to vote by standing and asking to be recognized for the record, Stavisky said."Sometimes they meet at the same time," she said. "The solution is to reduce the number of committees and the number legislators can serve on."

The Brennan report arrived at a similar conclusion, finding that at 32 the New York legislature had more committees than every other state with the exception of Mississippi, which has 35.

"It is only the overall inactivity of committees in New York that renders this problem less acute than it would otherwise be," the report said.

But Padavan said the daily floor calendar always lists the votes that are scheduled.

"If there's anything you want to vote on or debate against, you make sure you're there," he said. "The meetings are always going on and they all require attention. You can't do that being seated in one place."

Despite the proliferation of committees, the report said, few hearings are held and few reports are issued, making it difficult for the bodies to perform their two primary functions: to develop, examine and improve bills and then share their findings.

Among the other findings contained in the report that spanned more than 100 pages were the following:

* too much power vested in the majority leader and speaker to set the legislative calendar.

* limited debate and discussion of bills. Between 1997 and 2001, more than 95 percent of the major legislation passed in the Assembly and Senate was passed without debate.

* few conference committees to iron out legislative differences between both houses.

* legislative inefficiency. In 2002, New York introduced more bills than any other state -- 16,892 -- passing only 4.1 percent of them.

But some questioned the methodology behind the report. State Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale) said it seemed the study was compiled from other reports and documents rather than interviews with the lawmakers.

"I've never met or spoken to a single person from this center, and neither have the legislators I've talked to," he said. "It's easy to criticize. They studied reports rather than coming up to Albany."

But others hope the report will spur change in Albany.

"It's frustrating to see yourself denounced in the editorial pages," Stavisky said. "We absolutely have a dysfunctional legislature. You know it's true and you want to change it."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:10 pm, October 10, 2011
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