How Does Albany “Work”? What is the Role of the Union in Supporting and Opposing Legislation in the Corridors of the State Capital?

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
Niccolo Machiavelli

Why doesn’t the union get this bill or that bill passed? If the union is so powerful why don’t they….?

Legislative bodies, from the City Council in New York City to the Assembly and the Senate in Albany to both houses of Congress, complex opaque bodies with laborious processes to pass legislation. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU has a long history of criticizing the Albany legislature,

… most standing committees met infrequently or not at all. There were almost no hearings on major legislation. Not a single major bill was the subject of a detailed committee report. Leadership maintained near total control over what bills reached the floor. And on the floor, there was little substantive debate; every bill brought to the floor for a vote in either chamber passed.

The Brennan Center is correct in that “Leadership maintains near total control over what bills reached the floor.” Albany is no different than the City Council and Congress – the Majority Leader in the City Council and the Speaker in the House of Representative and the Majority Leader in the Senate control the flow of legislation in their bodies. Thus it has always been.

The 150 members of the Assembly and the 63 members of the Senate are a diverse group by party and geographic and ethnicity and core interests.

Democrats and Republicans, urban, suburban and rural, black and Hispanic, liberal and Tea Party, the 213 members convene weekly from January to June in the architecturally stunning 19th century Capital chambers.

The newly elected Assembly members in this session will introduce over 10,000 bills – fewer than 500 will become law.

Assmblymember Maisel introduced a bill to charge “targets” into “requirements,”

Requires charter schools to enroll children with disabilities and English
language learners in comparable numbers to those enrolled in public schools and provides that failure to comply may result in revocation of the charter.

The bill has a number of co-sponsors and a companion bill in the Senate.

In the Assembly the bill has many co-sponsors and may wend its way through the committee structure and make its way to the floor. On the Senate side the bill was introduced by a Democrat – the Senate is controlled by the Republicans and Independent Democratic Caucus leaders – the bill will have a much more difficult path in the Senate and no one knows the fate of the legislation if it reaches the governor’s desk.

The Assembly is firmly controlled by the Democrats and the Speaker Sheldon Silver, the debate on the floor is pro forma – if a bill comes to the floor it will pass; however, in the closed members-only Democratic conference the debate is vigorous. Issues that resonate on the streets of East New York are quite different that the issues facing the residents of million dollar suburban homes and farmers around the state.

Member support or opposition to issues in the conference may hasten, slow or derail legislation.

Traditionally on Tuesdays “special interests,” frequently accompanied by lobbyists visit the legislative offices in the Legislative Office Building, always referred to as the LOB: nurses followed by dairy farmers followed by pro-gun groups and State University students and professors and psychologists. Each group passionately supports a piece of legislation or budget issue, and, frequently fails to understand the process. Less than one bill in twenty makes its way through the process.

The problem for the legislator is often the committee staff. The staff will pass the bill along to the appropriate state agency for comment. The bill will be examined closely – does it conflict with other bills, with existing law, does the bill have fiscal impact? Bills will frequently bounce back and forth from staff to state agency to member with changes added and subtracted.

Bills must be guided through the legislative labyrinth to reach the governor’s desk. At the governor’s desk – a totally different set of issues – the governor has both a state and a national perspective. How will a bill impact a re-election campaign? A national presidential electoral campaign?

Let’s not forget the role of lobbyists – who encourage the print and electronic media to support or oppose proposed legislation through news stories, editorials and blogs.

The role of the union is complex and many faceted.

Establish “relationships” with as many legislators possible, Republicans as well as Democrats. This means contributing to campaigns within legal limits, visiting legislators in their district offices as well as in Albany, organizing parents and community members, using voluntary member contributions to purchase TV advertisements, maintain relationships with the leadership in both houses and in the State house – the governor’s mansion.

The path to pass legislation, or, equally important, to prevent the passage of legislation has an incredible number of potential pitfalls; bruising the wrong egos, forgetting to introduce someone who shows up at a rally. Mixed loyalties: do you support a legislator who supports your core bills but opposes other issues? i. e., does opposing marriage equality disqualify a candidate even if he supports a bill important to your members?

Unfortunately around the nation teacher organizations have been slow to jump into the dark pool of the real world of politics, with dire consequences.

Politics is a maze, a Rubik’s Cube, and the path to creating laws in a democratic society. It is not for the meek, not for the faint of heart, it requires both professionalism and dedication.

Did you watch Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln?


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