A new coalition of leaders in the New York State Senate is making its resolutions for change in the new year. The leader of the Senate Republicans, Dean Skelos, and the leader of a Democratic faction, Jeff Klein, have formed a coalition government pledging to end dysfunction in Albany and run the Senate in a more bipartisan manner.
For good-government groups like ours, we know all too well that the leaders running the Legislature tend to matter less than the rules under which they operate. Every two years following state legislative elections, the first vote the Senate takes is on its own procedures, which dictate everything from allocation of resources to rank-and-file members to the process through which bills come to the floor for a vote.
The resolution of literally every issue of importance to New Yorkers — raising the minimum wage, campaign finance reform, protecting coastal communities from another Hurricane Sandy, providing mandate relief to overtaxed localities and school districts — is impacted by the rules of the Senate.
For decades, those rules have typically allowed the Senate president to control which bills come to the floor, with any negotiation or debate confined to secret conversations and backroom dealings. If the president doesn’t support a proposal or perceives it to be a political liability for his party or conference, it never sees the light of day, even when it’s supported by the majority of the members or the public.
In short, one person can stop proposals dead in their tracks, even when they’re supported by millions of New Yorkers. This is currently the case for a long list of issues, including campaign finance reform, which is overwhelmingly supported by the public yet has not been addressed in any meaningful way since the 1970s.