Opening the door to what many hope will be an era of democratic reform, newly-minted state Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith on Monday afternoon introduced legislation to amend the senate's procedural rules. The rules were promptly adopted, giving greater agency to rank-and-file lawmakers, diminishing the power of party leadership, empowering senate committees and providing for more transparency and public input.
Far from comprising the musty annals of legislative mechanics, advocates assert these are the essential tools needed for real popular representation. Smith's arrival puts the senate in Democratic hands after four decades of Republican control. Good government groups – including NYU Law School's Brennan Center for Justice, which last week issued a report, Still Broken, on Albany's continuing “dysfunction” – are eager for the senate, under Smith’s leadership, to perform what they consider a long-overdue makeover on the body's procedural rules.
The Republican leadership says it's open to change. Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, said through an aide he welcomes wide-ranging reforms to empower rank-and-file lawmakers of the 62-member body. But Skelos only took the Senate reins last summer, after longtime party boss Joseph Bruno retired, and last week Bruno declined to comment on the matter.
Skelos spokesman Scott Reif attributed responsibility for lack of reform to both political parties. But operational rules reform isn't the most important task facing the senate, he says: “There are a number of pressing needs for the people of New York state, such as tax relief.” Nonetheless, Reif said Republican leaders also wanted to give committee chairs more power over legislation, allow rank-and-file legislators to initiate floor votes on bills, and reduce the ability of leadership from either party to stymie debate by bottlenecking bills in committees.
Smith announced passage of reforms including: