Can these bills be saved?


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The process of turning a bill into a law is simple enough to explain to children, or members of Congress.

But this is New York.

The stakes are high for some of the thousands of bills under consideration in Albany this year. They include proposals to raise the age at which young people can be criminally prosecuted; to legalize marijuana; to raise the minimum wage and combat political corruption.

For the second year running, The New York World has compiled a bill tracker that throughout the legislative session will follow the progress of these and other important bills under consideration in the New York state Senate and Assembly. The World worked with MinnPost and ProPublica to create the tracker, based on one built to follow Minnesota’s legislature.

What we found was that the neat and orderly legislative process outlined by our Minnesota counterparts was nothing like the messy birth of New York’s laws. Our tracker shows progress of measures from introduction to committee to amendments to passage in the Assembly and Senate, and finally to the governor’s signature — but a lot more goes on behind the scenes that never sees the light of day.

Last year, just 650 of the 13,991 bills introduced by members of the Assembly and Senate passed both houses, an analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group found. Of those, 87 were vetoed by Gov. Cuomo. The odds for this year’s crop are similarly daunting. But why?

Here’s what really happens when a bill is born in Albany.


What we were taught: Members vote on bills

What really happens: Leaders bottleneck most measures in committee

Textbooks tell us that a bill is introduced by a Senate or Assembly member and then referred to a committee made up of expert legislators. The committee holds public hearings on the proposed law and comes to an informed opinion about its merits or flaws. The bill finally comes to the floor for a vote.

But not in New York. Kenneth Sherrill, political science professor emeritus at Hunter College, calls New York’s “a legislature in which, by and large, the legislative process does not occur.”

Almost all major decisions, he observes, are mediated through a handful of leaders.

In the Assembly, it’s the speaker — currently  Democrat Sheldon Silver — who gets to pick and choose which bills are put in the legislative pipeline and eventually taken to the floor. In the Senate, Republican Dean Skelos and the Independent Democratic Caucus chair Jeffrey Klein form a majority coalition leadership that makes that call. Ultimately Gov. Andrew Cuomo has the power to sign or veto any bills that make it through both houses.

“Things are done totally at the level of top leadership,” said  Sherrill, “You have four men in a room and it’s haggled out. Rank-and-file members have little influence over legislation.”

Alex Camarda, director of public policy and advocacy at Citizens Union, a good government group, notes that the vast majority of bills that make it onto the floor pass.  “The real decisions are which bills come forth, not so much up or down on each bill.” Camarda said.


What we’re taught: Members write and pass laws; the governor signs them

What really happens: The governor is the boss

Andrew Cuomo isn’t the first governor to pack proposed changes to the law into his annual budget proposal, but he has refined the art, says Sherrill.

“I first noticed this particular abuse of gubernatorial power in the Pataki administration,” Sherrill said. “Because of the way the rules work, you [as a member] would have to vote against the entire budget in order to vote against that particular gubernatorial proposal. And since there’s so much in the budget that an individual legislator might want, it’s an extraordinary act of conscience and perhaps political folly…to vote against the entire budget.”

Under prior governors, legislative leaders have been able to fight the executive agenda by delaying the budget’s passage. But it has been a point of pride for Governor Cuomo that his budgets have always passed on time.

“The disdain that New York governors have for the legislature is no secret,” Sherrill said. “The use of the budgetary process is a way to strip legislators of their power.


What we’re taught: members answer to voters

What really happens: Lobbyists and campaign contributors rule Albany

It will be another month or so before the state Joint Committee on Public Ethics releases its annual report on lobbying, but if the 2013-’14 session follows prior experience, these are boom times for professionals who seek to influence the legislative process. In the 2011-’12 session, lobbying clients reported spending $425 million to shape the legislative process, including nearly $42 million on advertising. By far the biggest spender was the Committee to Save New York, a business coalition supporting Gov. Cuomo’s agenda,

“Legislators introduce bills for a whole host of reasons. Sometimes it’s in response to an issue that’s impacting their district. Sometimes it’s on behalf of a particular industry,” Camarda noted.

As the Moreland Commission on public corruption observed, “pay-to-play” campaign contributions to committee chairs are also part of New York’s legislative process — a realm the commission is now investigating. 

Concluded the commission, “Large campaign contributions are literally the coin of the realm in Albany.”


What we’re taught: A bill is a bill is a bill

What really happens: Legislation is a many-headed monster

This session the state Assembly is considering raising the age at which young people can be tried as adults — in at least three different bills.

Having multiple bills working toward similar purpose is common, say Albany watchdogs. What’s more, amendments often change the substance of a proposal before all is said and done.

“Legislators might agree with half of a bill that’s out there, but have a different opinion on another half,” Camarda said. “They might feel that a bill that was introduced is incomplete and doesn’t address the full scope of the issue. There are instances in which legislators want to put their own stamp of support or approval of a particular bill and they introduce it for that reason.”


What we’re taught: Members write their bills

What really happens: That’s often the exception

While some lawmakers are deeply involved in the crafting of their own bills, others rely heavily on outside help. One option is the independent bill-drafting commission housed within the legislature. It is also common to solicit the input of lobbyists and interest groups.

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because a lot of times those people have a lot of issue-area expertise,” Citizens Union’s Camarda said. “Our organization often provides feedback to legislators on good government-related bills and campaign finance bills…. It just makes sense from the point of view of a legislator who is a generalist to go to a specialist to get their feedback.”

Lobbyists and interest groups may also draft bills of their own to present to lawmakers — unbeknownst to their constituents.

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