New York State Legislative Process:
Why are do so few voting rights bills receive a vote in New York?
The legislative process in New York State is unique and complicated. There are no public hearings, online comments, or any of the other processes found in other states to allow everyday citizens to express support or ask questions of proposed legislation. In fact, New York ranks among the lowest in legislation passed and votes held in the legislature as much of the legislative work is done in the Governor’s budget, where money is first allocated and then legislation passed as part of the final budget approval. The budget process is notoriously secretive, the “3 Men In a Room” being the Governor and the leaders of the Assembly and Senate. These players go into a closed door meeting with the 3 budgets developed by the Executive branch (Governor), Senate and Assembly, and emerge with one. There is no transparency or accountability into the negotiations or process.
The dysfunction begins with the legislative rules of our elected bodies. These rules are not determined by the state constitution or by any state laws, but rather by the majority party of the Senate or the Assembly. Even though this process would be relatively easy to update to make it more democratic and transparent, there has been very little change in the rules governing the Assembly or Senate, regardless of which party is in power. This has been described as the “Incumbency Party” more interested in maintaining the status quo and keeping those already in power. This is not a Democratic or Republican problem, but rather an Albany problem. So, we may elect our Assembly Members and State Senators based on the issues they claim to support, but the reality is, they have very limited avenues to vote on or pass legislation.
In practice, the majority party leadership has primary control over scheduling and administration – things like staffing, office size, etc. Control of scheduling means they have power over what bills see the light of day and actually get voted on. As all bills must first be voted out of committee before they can be on by the full body, leaderships role in this process is important. In both the Senate and the Assembly, the Majority Leader determines the schedule of when bills are voted on in committee. As a consequence, it is difficult for any individual legislature to have their bill receive a vote by the general body, be it Senate or Assembly, unless the have the support of the majority leadership. The Majority Party leader controls committee leadership and also the hiring and firing of committee staff. Administratively, leadership has the power to punish any member who tries to go around their agenda. This further disincentivizes committee chairs from pushing legislation their leader does not support. If a bill does get out of committee, the Leader schedules when that bill is voted on by the full body.
The result is that New York State legislators vote on far fewer bills than their counterparts in other states. As the Brennan Center states, “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.”
Therefore, in doing our research for this project, we quickly realized that evaluating these elected officials based on their voting records would be a short and disappointing process. We chose instead to focus on the bills introduced and co-sponsored by our Senators as a way to measure their investment in the voting rights and the reformation of New York’s voting laws. We remain dedicated, however, to pressuring our elected representatives to draft, put forth, and then vote on legislation so that we can meaningfully assess their records and commitment to the well-being of their constituents.