Fewer bills making the cut in state Legislature
Since 1960s, new laws becoming less common
CAPITOL Quality over quantity.
That’s the reasoning of state legislators who say the legislative session that ended Saturday morning can’t be judged on the number of bills that passed the state Senate and Assembly — the third fewest of any regular session in more than a decade.
Despite passing 649 bills, below the recent average for bills passed, there hasn’t been a corresponding drop in the number of bills introduced: More than 14,000 were written and printed by the end of the regular session.
“[The numbers are] interesting to review, but I think it is meaningless,” said state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, who was the primary sponsor of 96 bills and had 23 pass the entire state Legislature. “In some cases, we should be thankful that some of these bills aren’t passed.”
He argued that an on-time state budget, efforts to help businesses — such as the creation of tax-free zones and upstate casinos — and the passage of local bills this year demonstrated the success of the session.
“We’re zeroing in on certain issues and dealing with them,” he said.
Echoing this sentiment was state Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon, who in her freshman year introduced 32 bills and had 10 pass the entire Legislature.
“I believe the quality of legislation is far more important than the quantity,” she said.
A flurry of activity in the final days of the legislative session — with more than 200 bills completing their journeys through both houses — kept the session's total from being one of the lowest in years. It ended up passing last year's total of 571 bills that made their ways to the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
New York Public Interest Research Group research coordinator Bill Mahoney agreed the quality of legislation is important but said one reason fewer bills are passed is that many are lumped together into omnibus bills. This practice, he said, subverts democracy because legislators don’t get to vote on issues as single items.
He said this consolidation of multiple issues into one bill regularly happens with the state budget, which now includes various legislative priorities, such as a raise in the minimum wage this year.
He also attributed the general drop in legislation passing both houses to a narrowed scope of state government. In the 20th century, state government reached its peak rate of passing bills in the 1960s, when Mahoney said it was spending more and getting into more corners of everyday life.
An annual average of 1,363 bills passed the state Legislature in the 1960s, compared to about 655 from 2010 to 2012, according to data compiled by Mahoney. In every decade since the 1960s, the average annual number of bills passed has decreased.
Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville, who introduced 91 bills as a primary sponsor and had one pass both houses, said this session was hampered by Cuomo’s controversial agendas and the continuous scandals, including sexual harassment allegations against then-Assemblyman Vito Lopez, D-Brooklyn.
Tedisco argued the power structure of the Legislature, where only the leaders of each chamber can decide what will be put up for a vote, also limits the number of bills that can pass. For instance, a proposal to allow mixed martial arts in the state was approved by the state Senate and had enough votes to pass the Assembly, but Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver held up the bill because a majority of his conference didn’t support it.
Mahoney said this problem was even more evident this year because the Senate was led by a coalition, with senators Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, and Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, deciding on the flow of legislation. Because of this, he said, “There are twice as many opportunities to prevent a bill from getting through the Senate.”
To rectify situations like this, Tedisco said, a law should be passed to require a floor vote on a bill if it is sponsored by a majority of the members in that chamber.
Legislation is also blocked by political maneuvering, such as Seward’s practice of introducing bills that are the same as Assembly bills he doesn’t like. This allows him to control the bill’s fate in the Senate and keep it from passing both chambers in a form he doesn’t like.
But even while the number of bills passing both houses is decreasing, the number being introduced shows no signs of shrinkage. About 9.3 percent of the proposals introduced passed the entire Legislature.
One of the reasons so may bills are introduced is that they are used as political statements, said Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie. Such bills are introduced by majority members of a chamber and passed in that chamber, then its sponsors hold a press conference touting the passage. This is typically done with liberal proposals in the Assembly and conservative bills in the state Senate — bills that members of each chamber know aren’t politically viable in the other.
But Mahoney noted that even though these bills might just be passed to score political points, the practice sometimes leads to change decades down the line.
“If one chamber passes the bill, it raises the profile [of the issue],” he said.
An example of this was the Assembly’s repeated passage of same-sex marriage legislation, which finally became law in 2011.
Some bills, though, aren’t even relevant anymore. A downstate Democratic senator has a bill that restricts current members of the New York City Off-Track Betting Corp., which hasn’t existed since 2010, from serving on the state Franchise Oversight Board.
Mahoney said bills can linger for a long time, noting, “There are some bills that have been kicking around since the ’60s.”
These bills that keep coming up each year, he said, are usually introduced to please constituents, even though legislators aren’t seriously working for their passage.
Steck, who was the primary sponsor of 16 bills and had five pass the entire Legislature, said legislators should limit the number of bills they introduce because there are only so many they can shepherd through the process. As a freshman legislator, he estimated about 20 bills would be all he could focus on.
Steck said introducing fewer bills or making legislators full-time might create more substantive bills, as he felt many currently proposed bills aren’t well thought out.
Tedisco said he’d be reluctant to put a cap on the number of bills a member can introduce,
“There’s no way we should limit the number of bills that are created by legislators on behalf of their constituents,” he said.