Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Note to Brennan Center: One-house bills are not a bad thing

Ross Levi, our Director of Public Policy and Education, had the following to say about the Brennan Center's recent report on the workings of the New York State Legislature:

Not to toot our own horn, but we here at the Pride Agenda know a little something about the workings of Albany. Our organization was founded by a New York City PAC merging with an Albany-based grassroots political organization, and since then we have helped get dozens of laws through the state Legislature.

So we are all too familiar with what a complex, stubborn and even sometimes annoying machine Albany can be. The levers can stick too much, it can move way too slowly and the whole thing is just bigger and more cumbersome than it would be in an ideal world. For this reason, our public policy agenda states that, “We support actions that foster a more open, transparent and efficient state government.”

Consequently, we have great admiration for the many good government groups working here in Albany to achieve that very goal. That includes NYU’s Brennan Center which annually recommends improvements to the functioning of state government.

There are a number of points in the Brennan Center’s latest report, however, with which we disagree. Most notably, we question whether the low ratio of bills introduced to bills passed into law is any indication of the inefficiencies of state government. The Brennan Center contends that because only 1,693, or 9% of the bills introduced in 2008 became law, legislators should be limited in the number of bills that they can introduce each session. The report implies that the practice of passing “one house bills,” i.e. one chamber passing a bill that never receives a vote in the other chamber, is a waste of government’s time.

We beg to differ, based on our past experience. As you can see in the statement we issued yesterday, it has been an important part of past advocacy efforts to have LGBT civil rights legislation passed in one house – which in our history has overwhelmingly been the Democratic controlled Assembly – even when we knew a measure stood little to no chance of seeing any similar action in the other house during that same session.

We think it is wrong for the legislature to have that leadership used against them as a sign of legislative dysfunction. Quite the contrary, it has routinely been an explicit part of our advocacy strategy to get a bill passed in one chamber, build its backing in terms of numbers and bipartisan support and use that passage to increase the momentum and political pressure for the other house to move. It is also an important tool to “smoke-out” legislators’ positions around a measure, either for later votes or for when legislators move onto new elected positions, such as when they move from the Assembly to the Senate.

The strategy was a success with hate crimes legislation and the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which each passed the Assembly for years before seeing even a vote in the Senate, and it is part of our work around the Dignity for All Students Act, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act and marriage equality legislation (though we hope and expect those measures will not need similarly long trails of one-house passage).

The rest of the state knows there is a value to one-house bills, too. When SONDA first passed the Assembly, it made the front page of the New York Times Metro section. This media attention is another value to one-house bills, in that it can appropriately bring attention to an issue that is going unaddressed, and serve as an important moment to begin or expand a civic “conversation.”

It is an appropriate part of the democratic process for one chamber to champion bills it views as priorities, even as those measures languish in the other house. The Brennan Center has a point that more frequent use of conference committees to reconcile similar-but-not-identical bills passed in both houses might be a good improvement. But we simply can’t agree that one chamber’s leadership on a one-house bill amounts to a waste of time and government resources. There are plenty of places to find inefficiencies in the legislative process, but surely this is not one of them.

Ross is based in the Pride Agenda's Albany office and is the longest serving current staff member at the Pride Agenda, starting as Legislative Counsel in 2000.

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