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Blair Horner: A Tale Of The Tape - A Look At The 2015 Legislative Session

The dust hasn’t completely settled yet, but the 2015 legislative session is in the books and New Yorkers can draw some conclusions about the activity of their representatives. 

A recent review of the 2015 session identified some surprises.  For example, while there has been considerable discussion over the session’s failures, an overview of the legislative activity tells a different story.  The 2015 session saw the highest number of bills passed compared to the previous six years.  Of course, passing more bills does not necessarily mean that the bills were consequential. 

However, while the 2015 session saw a hike in the number of bills that passed both houses, the total is still much lower than the overall historical trend.  The four years that saw the fewest bills pass both houses are 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2014.  Looking at the trend over a longer period shows that the number of bills approved by the Legislature has been in steady decline.  Since 1920 through the mid-1970s, state lawmakers had approved increasing numbers of bills, peaking during the Administrations of Governors Rockefeller and Wilson.  Starting with the Carey Administration, the numbers began to decline, with the least legislative activity during the current Administration. 

The analysis also showed that Governor Cuomo has been less likely to abuse his power to issue messages of necessity.  Under New York’s constitution, bills cannot be voted on for three days after they have made their way to the floor of the legislature.  This rule makes perfect sense: it allows lawmakers time to review bills before voting on them. 

However, the constitution also allows the governor to circumvent that rule by allowing bills to be voted on immediately in times when there is some “necessity,” at least in the governor’s view.  In the five years of Governor Cuomo’s tenure, an average of about 13 bills have passed both houses per year with a message of necessity.  The current governor’s record compares favorably to his immediate predecessors, the Spitzer/Paterson Administrations, which on average annually issued 41 messages of necessity and the Pataki Administration, which issued on average a whopping 90 messages per year.

There has been little change in the number of bills approved by the governor, and his actions track those of his most recent predecessors.  However, there has been an increase in the number of bills vetoed by Governor Cuomo.  This is one area in which we do not know how the governor will react to the 2015 session: many of the bills passed are in the flurry of June, 2015 activity and the vast majority of those bills have not yet been acted upon by the governor.

The analysis showed that legislative activity increased each month that lawmakers were in session, culminating with huge number of bills being approved in June.  Also, the analysis showed that Albany-based campaign fundraising peaked in March, the month when lawmakers are dealing with the state budget.

As I mentioned earlier, numbers alone do not tell the full story of a legislative session.  What is clear is that the session, at least numerically, was consistent with previous years.  What makes this session unique are the arrests and indictments of the legislative leaders.

Unfortunately, those arrests did not fundamentally change the way Albany operates; the faces changed but not much else.  The legislative leaders continued to control the process in both houses.

It continues to be the case that if the leader opposes bills, no matter how popular, they are blocked.

Here are some examples:

The Child Safe Products Act which would have regulated toxic chemicals in children’s products. The bill had two-thirds of the Senate as sponsors, was approved by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the Assembly, and was supported by the governor.  Yet, the Senate leader killed the bill by blocking it from coming to a vote.

The same was true of Senate legislation to ban the dumping of fracking waste, which had a majority of Senate sponsors; a bill to ban microbeads; legislation to improve elevator safety; and legislation to improve patient protections.  All of these efforts had the votes to pass, but were killed by the Senate leader’s opposition.

The numbers show that despite all of the indictments and promises for change, Albany’s status quo remains firmly entrenched.  Hopefully, the public will not accept a system that undermines legislative innovation and reform.  Voters must demand more or ensure that lawmakers pay the price in next year’s elections.

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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