Suffolk Closeup: Voters played for suckers

KARL GROSSMAN

KARL GROSSMAN

“To sum it up, over the last 15 years more members of the State Assembly have left Albany through the criminal justice system than the ballot box,” said Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), who represents Shelter Island, last week.

The indictment of 20-year State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, for allegedly taking $4 million in kickbacks steering legislation and state funding has again brought what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called the “cauldron of corruption” in Albany to political stage center.

Mr. Silver is among a long line of state legislators, going back decades, who’ve been charged with corruption.

When I was a reporter at the daily Long Island Press, I was regularly sent to Albany to help cover the last week of the legislative session. That was when things happened — not because of deliberations by 150 members of the State Assembly or the 63 members of the State Senate. It was the “three-men-in-a-room” session, meaning the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader, who in that final week, made the major decisions for the year.

A democratic process in Albany? Not really. And nothing much has changed.

A comprehensive, well-documented and highly critical report, titled “The New York State Legislative Process: An Evaluation and Blueprint for Reform,” was issued by the Brennan Center at the New York University School of Law in 2004. It concluded that the New York State Legislature is the most dysfunctional legislature in the United States. In Albany the “legislative process is broken,” the report states.

The problems of the Legislature “deprive New Yorkers of the government they deserve.” Indeed, New York’s legislative process limits elected officals’ consideration of legislation, whether counted in hearings, debate, amendments, readings, conference committee, or even simply legislators’ presence when they vote. Neither the U.S. Congress nor any other state legislature so systematically limits the roles played by rank-and-file legislators and members of the public in the legislative process.

“It has become something of a cliché to bemoan Albany’s dysfunctional legislative process and the ‘three-men-in-a-room’ system of lawmaking,” the report states. “Virtually every major newspaper in New York State has editorialized for many years against the current system and its byproducts, including perennially late budgets, the lack of open deliberation and debate, empty seat voting, gridlock, costliness and inappropriate payments, incumbency protection, or the extent of control exercised by the two leaders.”

Nothing is passed by the State Legislature without the O.K. of the two men who control each of the chambers. This system effectively shuts the peoples’ elected representatives out of the policy making process, and often prevents important legislation that enjoys majority support from reaching the floor of the Senate or Assembly. They tightly manage the committee system and hire and fire staff.

U.S. Attorney Bharara, in a presentation after his office brought the indictment against Mr. Silver, spoke about being an immigrant from India and how he had “a little bit of a hard time getting my head around” the way governance in New York State is based on “three-men-in-a-room.” He took to task elements of the media and the political establishment for accepting and embracing government by three men, noting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent quip in his State of the State speech that he, Mr. Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were “the Three Amigos.”

“It’s weird to me,” said Mr. Bharara, that “officials and writers joke about it good-naturedly. When did 20 million New Yorkers agree to be ruled by a triumvirate?”

What’s to be done? Many, many things. The NYU School of Law report makes a host of recommendations. The organization “U.S. Term Limits” last week called it “imperative” that the legislature have term limits of eight years.

Mr. Thiele suggests, among other things, “decentralizing power and giving more authority to committee chairs,” and a state Initiative and Referendum process that exists in many states and in Suffolk County, so “if the legislature is not responsive, the people can do it.”

U.S. Attorney Bharara summed it up best: “This can finally be a turning point for reform. If there ever was a moment for true reform, it’s now.”

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