Geoff Kelly has a great piece in Buffalo's alt-weekly, Artvoice, reviewing the book “Three Men in a Room”, written by former Democratic State Senator Seymour Lachman.
Combining personal anecdotes, historical background and a dismaying collection of statistics, Lachman makes the case for a sweeping revision of the way state government does business, by means no less dramatic than a state constitutional convention. His account also explains why, after four successful re-election bids, he resigned his seat in disgust in 2004. He had first won the seat in a 1996 special election. What he found in Albany was a legislature whose members had little or no say in crafting legislation; whose members traded obedience to their party and house leaders for perquisites, pork-barrel projects and easy re-election; which was in the sway of powerful, largely unregulated lobbyists; and which routinely failed to accomplish anything of substance, even its most basic responsibility to pass an annual budget on time. In short, he found a government that was controlled almost entirely by three men in a room, who run New York State with little accountability to most New Yorkers. A government, Lachman notes in the book, which in 2002 managed to pass only 4.4 percent of the 16,892 bills legislators introduced—the lowest achievement record of any statehouse in the country.
Go and read the whole thing. It will make you angry. Anger is, sometimes, a very potent motivator. Lachman recommends several specific reforms that he says are absolutely essential if Albany is to stop behaving like a Soviet rubber-stamp show-legislature, and instead turn into a proper representative legislative body:
• Term limits for all Assembly members and senators.
• Eliminate special budget allocations worked out among house leaders and the governor for their special projects.
• Require total transparency of any and all member items, which are intended to serve community needs, not the electoral agenda of the house leaders.
• Set up a nonpartisan redistricting board, as the redistricting process is now used by Senate and Assembly leaders to prevent truly competitive elections and protect their house majorities.
• Establish a permanent, nonpartisan ethics commission to police the Legislature, executive branch and state agencies.
• Limit the state to a maximum of a dozen public authorities at any one time, keeping the authorities such as those responsible for transit and highways and scrapping the rest, incorprotating their functions into the regular state budget. At the same time, establish a nonpartisan commission with ample auditing staff to oversee the public authorities that remain and report on their activities and expenditures to the Legislature and the public.
• Require seniority-based appointments of committee chairs, subject to party vote, thus providing committees some autonomy from the house leaders to devise and debate legisaltion.
• Equalize resources for staffs ad services for every legislator, regardless whether he or she is in the dominant or minority party of his or her house. This will prevent the second-class treatment of minority-party mebers in both houses and the denial of one-person, one-vote principles for their constituents.
• Require every bill voted out of legislative committee to be voted on by the entire house, not selectively weeded out or junked by the house leader.
• Establish a mechanism to resolve legislative difference in compatible bills passed in the Senate and the Assembly.
• Establish a nonpartisan, independent budget office to monitor state budget and state finances, including debt accumulation and taxation.
No way I can get and read this book beforehand, but if you’re available, you might want to check this out:
He will take part in a panel discussion on Albany’s dysfunctions on Wednesday, September 13, 7-9pm, at Hallwalls at the Church. Lachman’s co-panelists are Lawrence Norden of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and Dr. William Ganley, Professor of Economics and Finance at Buffalo State College. The evening is co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara, Talking Leaves Books and WNED radio, whose news director, Jim Ranney, will moderate.