The Albany Riddle: Can the “Average Person” Make an Impact on the Albany Legislative Process?

Which state lost the most Democratic House of Representative seats on Election Day?

New York State – 4 seats, 25% of the total seats lost nationally.

The Buffalo Chronicle reports,

Governor Andrew Cuomo is being blamed for staggering Democratic Party losses in the House of Representatives.

Despite the Governor fundraising upwards of $45 million for his own reelection campaign and finishing with many millions still in the bank, his beleaguered fellow Democrats received minimal financial support from the Governor — and top party operatives in Washington, DC are rumored to be irate.

Cuomo’s administration has been disgraced by corruption scandals in the last few months that are ongoing. He had been hoping for an election win that would catapult him to national political prominence.

… Governor Cuomo burned some very serious bridges with House Democratic leadership, which observers say could prove stifling for his presidential ambitions.

Throughout the summer and fall Cuomo was leading his Republican opponent, Rob Astorino in the polls by twenty plus points and dwarfed Astorino in fund-raising. The Republican National Committee (RNC) gave him no chance and did not invest in his campaign. The Democrats were hoping that a Cuomo landslide would drag along the remainder of the ticket; they hoped Cuomo would have deep coattails.

Cuomo decided to run an almost non-partisan campaign, while on the Democratic line his campaign was aloof from the hurly-burly of campaign politics.

The head of the ticket usually scoots around the state campaigning for fellow party members running for Congress, the Assembly and the Senate, Cuomo flooded the airwaves with his ads and ignored contentious races around the state.

Cuomo eschewed traditional democratic politics; he decided to sever himself from the teachers union, to rollback property taxes, to mumble incoherently around immigrant rights, extending rent control, decriminalizing marijuana, and a long list of progressive issues.

The state Senate was “up for grabs,” the pre-election Senate was run by Republicans and the Independent Democratic Coalition (IDC), Jeff Klein and a handful of Democrats who bolted the party and created a power sharing arrangement with the Republicans.

With the head of the ticket apparently rolling to victory the chances for a Democratic victory in the Senate looked bright. The Republicans won five of the six seats targeted by the Democrats.

When the dust settled the Democrats lost four House seats and the Republicans captured the national and the state Senate.

The state has traditionally been run by “three men in a room,” the governor, the speaker of the Assembly and the majority leader of the Senate, ultimately they control all legislation – for the last two years Jeff Klein, the leader of the IDC increased the team to “four men in a room.”

Post-election day the Democrats increased their majority in the 150-seat Assembly to 110 seats and the Republicans, with 32 seats in the 63-seat Senate hold sway.

The subplots were many.

This was a particularly partisan campaign. NYSUT, the state teacher union jumped in totally on board with the Democrats. Usually the union is strategic, endorsing candidates on both sides of the aisle. And, even if the Democrats had won, Jeff Klein and his IDC buds might have decided to remain in the middle, thwarting a Democratic majority.

Will the Governor and the Legislative Leaders Call a Lame Duck Session?

A “lame duck” session is a legislative session held after Election Day and before the newly elected legislators take their seats. In 1998 Governor Pataki called a lame duck session with two items on the agenda, a salary bump and a charter school law. Not surprisingly both bills passed; there is talk of a lame duck session before the end of the year. Could we see a deja vu, a deal involving a pay bump and raising or eliminating the charter cap, some election reforms, and other sweeteners? This is Albany: Nothing surprises.

Pre-Kindergarten Funding, Charter Schools and other Mischief

Legislators will begin the trek to Albany in January, for the first two months three-day a week sessions and the budgeting process slowly picks up speed. Bills are introduced, the traditional Tuesday invasion by the lobbying public, a session Wednesday and back home. Over the two years of the session (1/1/15 – 12/31/16) about 12,000 bills will be introduced into the Assembly and about 3-400 will end up as laws. Some legislators introduce hundreds of bills, other relatively few. On a slow day 300 or so emails will pop up on a legislator’s computer, on a busy day 1.000 or so. An intern sorts through trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, constituents, who warrant an answer and the machine-generated letters. The fax hums and prints all day, once again constituents may get an answer. On Tuesdays the hordes descend, some make appointments, other simply drop by hoping for the best. I have sat with a legislator: CUNY students opposing a tuition raise, dairy farmers concerned with milk quotas, nursing home owners worried about state reimbursements, lobbyists representing a particular client who wants help in resolving an issue with the state, on and on. Some legislators meet with groups, other pass the task along to a staffer.

As legislators draft bills they may seek co-sponsors, what bills should you join?

Click on the following:
http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/

Check “keyword” and type in “education” and 946 bills with education in the title will appear.

Each bill requires a companion bill on the Senate side, preferably with a Republican sponsor, the more co-sponsors you can line up the better, the bill is assigned to a committee, and if it involves dollars it also goes to the finance side, the budget committee. The vast majority of bills sputter and never make it to the floor; those that do may pass and die due to lack of action on the Senate side. And, if you’re determined enough to get a bill through both houses the bill requires the governor’s signature to become a law.’

A legislator who had been a science teacher introduced a bill that allowed unused New York State Textbook Law (NYSTL) dollars to be used to buy science supplies – the bill would not add any dollars to the budget.

Endless meetings with other legislators, science teachers, science teacher organizations, school board associations, the state education department and others, months and months go by, finally the bill passes both houses and goes to Governor Patterson’s desk for signature – he vetoes the bill – the veto message says the no cost bill is too costly!

In the waning days of March as the three-day a week sessions increase to four, to five, to the last few days of almost around the clock sessions, the “three men in a room,” actually their staffs, craft the one hundred forty billion dollar state budget.

Read a summary of the 2014-2015 budget: https://www.budget.ny.gov/pubs/press/2014/pressRelease14_enactedBudgetReleased.html

On the final night the parts of the budget come fast and furious as legislators vote on the hundreds and hundreds of pages of dense charts and graphs, hours after hours of votes on a budget that the legislators will have to read about on the blogs to comprehend.

In order to fund the $300 million for pre-kindergarten for next year the governor may extract something from the mayor? Will another concession to charter schools be part of the budget settlement? Or, conversely, will an adjustment to the property tax cap be included to ease the burden for stressed school districts?

The school budget is an enormously complex set of formula and the state has still not restored the formula that cut dollars as a result of the 2008 fiscal collapse. How will the budget deal with “stressed” districts, school districts that are in effect “educationally bankrupt,” they can’t meet statutory requirements due to lack of dollars?

Passing Laws and Preventing Laws from Passage: Reining in the State Education Department

Before or after some legislative sessions “the conference” meets just off the floor of the Assembly chamber; actually the majority caucus, a closed door, members and top staff only, with the tacit agreement that what is said in the conference stays in the conference. Conference is an opportunity for the leadership to test the pulse of the members and the members to express themselves.

In the last session Leonie Haimson, who leads Class Size Matters, led an assault on InBloom, the plan to build a warehouse of private student data and allow third party providers to use the data. Leonie built a movement, parents from around the state battered their legislators, the commissioner fought back, legislators felt the pressure and InBloom is no more.

Parents from affluent school districts were appalled by the new Common Core test results, kids moved from highly proficient to below proficient. Legislators were bombarded, the number of “opt-outs” escalated, the pressure grew and grew and in the waning days of the session a law was passed to postpone the impact of the Common Core tests on students and teachers.

Lawmakers are sensitive to grassroots constituents as well as the high profile lobbyists.

BTW, did you make a contribution to a candidate? Did you work in a campaign? Have you ever met with your local legislator? Do you write letters to the editor in your local newspaper? Do you write a column in your homeowner association newsletter? Do you ever visit your legislators in their community office?

Phone conversation: “I’m Jane Smith, representing the 650 members of the Every Town Parent-Teacher Association; we would like to meet with the Assembly member to discuss …….” I bet you get a meeting.

As Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.”

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision stated, “a sound basic education consisted of ‘the basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury. All students in New York public schools therefore have the right to an opportunity for a meaningful high school education, one which prepares them to function productively as civic participants.’”

We should be role models by acting as “civic participants” in the legislative process.

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One response to “The Albany Riddle: Can the “Average Person” Make an Impact on the Albany Legislative Process?

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