In the last month, the New York Senate plumbed a new low in messy and irresponsible non-governance. Two Democratic senators, Hiram Monserrate and Pedro Espada, brought business to a standstill on June 8, when they abruptly switched political parties, giving the Republicans a majority. Monserrate re-defected to the Democrats soon after, leaving a 31-31 tie with no consensus on leadership and little real desire in either party to cooperate with the other.
As the regular session drew to a close, a number of bills that had passed through the New York Assembly remained untouched by the Senate, including measures necessary to sustain local tax codes and the New York City school system. Governor David Paterson drew up a list of nearly 60 bills that he considered priorities and forced the Senate to reconvene in special session. Unable to compromise, the senators spent weeks calmly gaveling in and gaveling out on a daily basis, leaving business untouched in defiance of the governor’s order, and allowing legislative deadlines to whistle by.
A band-aid solution finally calmed the fracas: Espada rejoined his party, calling the stunt a “leave of absence” and putting the Democrats once again in the majority. Fistfuls of legislation were passed frantically through in late-night work conventions, before wrapping up business for the summer.
The bizarre and wasteful month-long Senate coup served only to draw attention to longstanding problems. Policy watchdog organizations in New York State have been using terms such as “egregious” and “dysfunctional” to describe the Senate for years. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy think tank at New York University that publishes a regular report (pdf) on the New York legislature, includes complaints within the reports about the flagrant disregard its calls for reform receive at the capitol.
The Director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, E.J. McMahon, told TAS that the coup was “a lurid sideshow” that itself had little to do with policy and only served to draw attention to the much deeper issues that plague both of the state’s legislative bodies. Chief among these issues: a membership that avoids measures that increase transparency and accountability; committees that rarely convene, if ever; and a leadership powerful enough to pass an even hundred percent of bills it allows to reach the floor, with almost no debate.
Eyeing the mayhem, Republican former congressman and gubernatorial hopeful Rick Lazio proposed a radical solution: abolish the Senate altogether and adopt a unicameral legislative body. In an open letter to Gov. Paterson and another vocal gubernatorial aspirant, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Lazio wrote:
It’s clear that our political system is fundamentally broken. I call for the abolishment of the State Senate and join Mayor Giuliani in urging an immediate constitutional convention to create a new legislative branch comprised of a single body, which also would replace an equally dysfunctional State Assembly. The restructuring of the legislature should include an independent and non-partisan redistricting process. We need sweeping change in New York and neither party can provide it. The status quo has failed.
Later, the New York Times published a short letter from Lazio further expounding on his idea as a money-saving boon that will allow for needed reform in schools and health care policy.
Strange as the suggestion seems, New York would not be the first state to take such a step. Nebraska has operated under a unicameral system since 1934, and Maine, whose Senate was sans party majority for several years beginning in 2000, approved a referendum for 2010 on a question that would make its legislature unicameral by 2014. Supporters of the Maine unicameral proposal praise the efficiency of a one-house model, touting $15 million in estimated total yearly savings from the measure.
Lazio claims that New York’s two-house system costs an annual $200 million to maintain. But even figuring on a New York senator’s base pay of $79,500, simply firing all 62 of them could earn the state a clear $5 million, trimming down a legislative budget that is third highest in the nation. Incidentally, $5 million is how much June’s “sideshow” cost the taxpayers of New York State.
A number of New York senators have espoused the idea of a “coalition government” in the legislature, having the parties cooperate out of necessity in order to conduct business. But the Senate came no nearer to reaching such an arrangement in the last month, thwarted in part by obstinacy and in part by niggling criminal assault charges that a number of ranking members face, making them less than ideal for leadership.
Reform may be coming one way or another. Last week, the Senate approved a resolution establishing leadership term limits, increasing committee action, and providing for public video recording of Senate sessions.
Yet these steps barely address the laundry list of reforms that the state policy watchdogs have long advocated. While the senators’ stunt has, as McMahon predicted, made the body more democratic than it has ever been by vividly highlighting the dysfunction within, the old problems will be back with the first gavel fall of the new session. Meanwhile, the state’s debt surpasses $50 billion and increases by $4 billion a year, while healthcare and education policy remain systemic problems.
More misgovernment like that and a unicameral solution might just start catching on.