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Blair Horner: The 2014 Legislative Wrap Up

Now that the 2014 legislative session is finished, the question is what got done?  During this session, high profile bills got passed – such as a new law allowing, in select circumstances, the medicinal use of marijuana.  Over the past four years, the budget was completed in time for the beginning of the new fiscal year, a streak unheard of in modern New York State history.

But what are lawmakers actually doing during the legislative session other than passing budgets and bills?  Thanks to my colleague, Bill Mahoney, the New York Public Interest Research Group has been reviewing the legislative process at the state Capitol.  Here are some tidbits from the most recent review:

658 bills passed both houses in 2014.  While this is a bit more than in the past two years, the overall historical trend in terms of bills passing has been down.  Since 1915, the four years that saw the fewest bills pass both houses are 2009, 2012, 2013, and 2014.  It seems that a smaller number of two-house bills is a new reality in New York State.  There are several reasons this might be the case, and they seem to be rooted in both structural changes in the legislative process and in changes in the productivity and total output of legislation (for better or worse) of the state Legislature.

The analysis showed that the state Senate spent about 85 hours in session.  The Senate was scheduled to be in session for a total of 58 ½ days.  So, that means that the Senate was actually in session on average nearly 1 ½ hours per legislative day.  For about the same number of days (61 ½), the Assembly was in session for more than 195 hours, which works out to being in session a bit more than 3 hours per day.

In the Senate, the number of bills that passed with no opposition increased from 52% to 60%. In the Assembly, Democrats agreed with Speaker Silver more frequently than last year: only one Assembly Democrat agreed with the Speaker less than 95% of the time.

The Senate left a significant amount of its workload for June, a month in which they passed 73% of their bills.  In the last week alone of the legislative session, Senators passed 427 bills, representing 29% of the session’s total legislation.

The Assembly spent more than twice as much time in session as the Senate, despite the fact it passed several hundred fewer bills.  The Assembly passed 61% of its bills in June, passing 542 bills during the last week of session.

Looking at the role of the governor, under the state constitution the governor has the power to allow for speedy votes on bills without the required 3 day review period.  This power to short-circuit the review process is when he issues a “message of necessity.”  There was considerable controversy and public criticism over the use of a message of necessity to pass gun control legislation, the “SAFE Act” in January, 2013.  The analysis showed that Governor Cuomo relies on this method of passing bills far less frequently than his immediate predecessors.  In his tenure of four legislative sessions, an average of 13 ½ bills per year has passed either house with a message, compared to 41 annually during the Spitzer/Paterson Administration and 89 annually under Governor Pataki.

Without this analysis (you can look at the full review by going to nypirg.org), it is hard to know what actually is going on during the six-month legislation session – other than the big issues covered by the media.

A couple of things jump out – lawmakers spend relatively little time debating bills.  Committee meetings in the Senate are often infrequent and poorly attended.  Committee meetings in both houses are usually carefully scripted events in which leadership controls approval of bills under consideration.

So if not much is happening in committee, and little time is spent debating bills on the floors of each house, what else happens?  Well, for one thing, lawmakers are hosting fundraisers for lobbyists.  During the 2014 legislative session, Albany’s elected officials and political parties held at least 176 fundraisers in order to hit up lobbyists for contributions.

And during those six months, they were in Albany about 40 nights – thus they averaged more than 4 fundraisers per night!

The governor and state lawmakers come to Albany in order to solve the state’s problems.  We should expect more work and less hitting up lobbyists for money.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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