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NYS Legislature is all words, little action

Thousands of bills introduced but few passed

Sunday, February 13, 2011
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Committee Bills Clerk Tim McHugh sorts and files in the Assembly Public Documents Room at the Legislative Office Building in Albany on Friday morning.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Committee Bills Clerk Tim McHugh sorts and files in the Assembly Public Documents Room at the Legislative Office Building in Albany on Friday morning.

— Even as New York begins the task of reeling in its state government, the Legislature seems committed to its practice of writing thousands of bills every year, even though most of them will never become law.

And the state Legislature is on pace to introduce more legislation in the upcoming session than ever before. That’s a waste of money and resources, according to Lawrence Norden, the senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute at New York University.

More than 8,000 bills have already been introduced in 2011. “It certainly is a real cost,” Norden said.

The Legislature is responsible for proposing new laws, and each legislator is supposed to exercise this power by writing bills that address the needs of the constituents they represent. In theory, they’re trying to correct inequities, encourage economic growth and promote the public welfare.

Hopefully with these principles in mind, the legislator begins to write legislation with the help of staffers, counsels and lobbyists. The rough draft is turned into its final product by the Legislative Bill Drafting Commission, a bipartisan organization that formats legislation into an official form.

It is almost impossible to pinpoint the actual printing costs of all of the bills introduced each year, with wildly different figures being suggested.

The Democratic majority in the Assembly contends that the Legislature spends $400,000 a year on the entire bill drafting process, including about $124,000 for materials and $262,000 in labor. These numbers don’t seem to square with the fact that the LBDC spent more than $300,000 on materials and millions on staffing in the last fiscal year.

In contrast to the low estimates are the figures of Republican Assemblyman William Barclay, who suggests that the figure is closer to $2,200 per bill, which would mean the state spends millions each year on introducing bills.

The cost discrepancy most likely revolves around what expenditures are being considered when determining total costs. Barclay’s total takes into account all of the people involved in the process — legislative staffers and counsel, who actually write, review and shepherd any proposed bills. “It’s mostly man hours,” he said.

It was with these costs in mind that Barclay reintroduced legislation in the beginning of February that would limit each senator to 125 bills and each Assembly Members to 50 bills during each session. In practice this would seriously retrain state legislators, with about half of the Senate and Assembly currently exceeding their respective limits.

“We tried to strike a balance,” said Barclay, who wanted to ensure that legislators could still advance meaningful priorities. His reason for promoting a change was that the current practice requires an enormous amount of money and time and doesn’t always serve the people’s interests with maximum efficiency.

Exercises in futility

The expense and inefficiency of so many bills has repeatedly been a concern for the Brennan Center, which has documented years of waste. The center tackled this specific issue in reform recommendations for 2006 and 2008.

The center’s 2008 report, “Still Broken: New York State Legislative Reform,” noted that 18,239 bills had been introduced in 2008 but only about 9 percent successfully navigated through the Senate and the Assembly. For context, the Brennan Center reported that New Jersey had the next-highest bill introduction rate that year, with only one-third of New York’s total. Fewer than 11,000 bills and resolutions were introduced that year by the U.S. Congress.

This poor performance was repeated in 2009, when the Council of State Governments recorded that New York enacted 507 laws, or 3 percent of the total proposed that year. That year Texas came in second to New York, with half as many introduced bills and nearly three times as many enacted laws.

One of the main reasons for this poor passage rate is that some legislators reintroduce the same bills every year, even though they haven’t passed in the past.

The worst offenders in both chambers of the Legislature are also tops in bills introduced so far this year. Earlier in the week, Democratic Senator Carl Kruger had introduced 340 bills, of which only five were new, and Democratic Assemblyman Steven Englebright had introduced 234 bills, of which only three were new. In terms of effectiveness, only about 1 percent of Kruger’s bills passed in the previous session and only about 2 percent of Englebright’s passed.

Along with the repeat bills are the bills that only pass one chamber, said Barclay. Because New York traditionally has had a divided Legislature, with different parties controlling the two chambers, it’s common for one chamber to pass bills that the other chamber would never touch. He said such bills are an expensive waste of time, time that would be better spent on a few significant pieces of legislation that might become law in the current political environment.

Another problem is that legislators don’t know what their colleagues are working on, even those who are working on similar issues, according to Norden, of the Brennan Center, who said legislators working on similar bills should combine their efforts.

Political ploys

In practice, this isn’t always easy. Democratic Assemblywoman Sandy Galef said the Legislative Bill Drafting Commission is supposed to stop members from introducing bills that have a shared theme or common cause, but she said that doesn’t usually happen.

In the commission’s defense, Galef conceded that they might have a hard time turning away members from the majority in either chamber.

“It should be that we team up on bills,” said Galef, who said that some members were discouraged from joining on someone else’s bill because credit in the media is usually given to the sponsor.

In some cases, members in the minority aren’t allowed to even attach their names to legislation that is being written or in the process of becoming law, said Barclay. As a Republican in the Democrat-dominated Assembly, he said that in the past it was extremely hard for his party to sign on to bills from the majority. The protectiveness also spilled over to the Legislative Bill Drafting Commission, with Barclay citing instances where he inquired into the existence of similar legislation and was essentially left in the dark.

These two circumstances with the commission appear to have played out with Barclay and Galef for at least six years: Each introduced limits on legislation without knowing what the other was doing.

When Barclay was informed about his parallel path with Galef, he couldn’t help but notice the irony and realized that he had a potential ally. “I will give her a call,” he promised on Wednesday afternoon.

 
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