The lopsided defeat of the constitutional convention ballot referendum this month was a setback for reformers hoping to bring about change to the byzantine procedural rules in New York state government that suppress reform and continue to concentrate power disproportionately in the small leadership oligarchy.
Opponents to the con con claimed it wasn’t needed. We already have a process in place to amend the state constitution, they crowed. You just have to ask the state Legislature to pass a bill to place the measure directly on the ballot for a vote by the people. Good luck with that one.
It is precisely the Legislature's cowardly reluctance to support meaningful reform that prompted good government groups to seek to circumvent them through the convention. Now that the con con went down in blazes, let’s call the bluff of the measure's opponents who told us to petition our legislators.
Here are some of the most needed reforms to the legislative process that can help New York have a less dysfunctional state government:
Open the committee process:
As a freshman assemblyman in 2001, I was aghast at how inconsequential the Albany committee process was. I had been a local legislator in Suffolk County, accustomed to having two-hour committee hearings during which both the public and officials actually debated the merits of a bill. Albany committee meetings lasted 10 minutes, and two were for the pledge. No public comment. Little to no debate.
In fact, the only bills on the agenda were the ones the committee chairs allowed to be placed there. If changes were made to the bills, it was usually in the legislator's office at the behest of a lobbyist.
Create an independent legislative budget office:
Suffolk County has an independent budget review office and Congress has the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, but there is no such independent entity on the state level. Any data comes from the partisan, agenda-driven staff of leadership.
Eliminate the Rules Committee
Just when you think you convinced your colleagues to support an important bill, you find you're not quite there yet. If the speaker wants to bury the bill, for ideological reasons, to pander to an interest group or simply to punish the sponsor for some nefarious reason, he just refers it to the Rules Committee, a.k.a., the “legislative graveyard.”
End lulus for committee chairs and leadership
Much discussion has ensued over the years to increase legislative salaries from the $79,500 base pay that has been in effect since the turn of this new century. A very legitimate argument could be made for the raise, but it must be coupled with an elimination of the extra stipends, known as lulus, that come with appointments to committee chairs and leadership positions. These lulus make individual legislators hostages to leadership. If you dare to show a streak of independence, your extra income will be snatched away.
Provide similar support staff for all legislators
As a rookie assemblyman, I was originally allotted $70,000 to pay for the staffing of two offices – one local and one in Albany. This was impossible and leadership knew it. The secret was that they wanted you to beg the speaker to give you the resources you needed to carry out basic functionality. The response usually was, “OK, we will do you a favor, but don’t let anyone else know.” The implication is: Now you owe us. This nonsense must stop. Every legislator represents an equal number of constituents and deserve – regardless of seniority or party affiliation – the resources they need to properly perform their legislative duties without becoming beholden to legislative leadership. (Additional staffing to assist a committee chair for solely committee functions could be the exception.)
So, to all the opponents of the constitutional convention, how about it? Will you join us in petitioning our sitting legislators to place these reforms on the ballot?
Steve Levy is president of Common Sense Strategies, a political consulting firm. He served as Suffolk County executive, as a state assemblyman and host of "The Steve Levy Radio Show."