"Let's Get on With Reform" by Senator George Winner

George Winner

July 03, 2009

When the vote was taken on June 8th to change the leadership of the New York State Senate, it’s important to remember that there was another vote that very same afternoon which, in the end, may turn out to be the most far-reaching action of all in 2009.

It was a vote to guarantee that the Senate leads the way on unprecedented changes to New York’s legislative process.  Let’s get right to the point.  We have taken a vote in favor of Senate rules changes that will, among many other key actions:

-- impose term limits on Senate leadership positions and committee chairs.  The President of the Senate, for example, could only serve for six years.  Committee chairs would be term-limited to eight years.  What a change this constitutes in Albany’s “leadership dominated” political culture, a culture which currently permits a long-term leader such as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has served in that capacity since 1994.  Furthermore, membership on Senate committees will be proportional to the Senate’s membership as a whole – a far cry from a current committee membership system dominated by majority parties;

-- provide for a more equitable allocation of Senate resources.  It’s a longstanding practice within New York government that members of majority parties have enjoyed far greater ability to secure resources for staffing, media services, administrative functions, as well as to direct valuable state aid to favored organizations and projects. The new Senate reforms put an end to this unfairness and inequality;

-- open the legislative process to greater public scrutiny.  The voting records of individual senators, for example, will be published online. Perhaps most importantly, the reforms make it easier for individual senators to bring legislation to a vote by the full Senate.  In short, the current legislative process is dominated by the leadership.  That changes under these reforms and individual legislators are empowered.

I understand that a lot of this, on its face, holds little meaning to anyone who’s not a political insider.  But believe me, these are long-awaited, long-overdue reforms.  One of the Legislature’s most vocal critics, the Brennan Center for Justice, who several years ago bestowed the “dysfunctional” label on New York government, had this to say about the fight for the Senate, “As strange as it may sound, the chaos that has engulfed the state capital the last week could be the best thing to happen in Albany in years - if rank-and-file members seize the moment…The rules changes that the ‘bipartisan coalition’ passed last week were an important step.”

My colleagues and I are fully intent on seizing this moment for change.  Most importantly, the approved reforms must stay in place.  In a matter of minutes on June 8th, we set the reform bar higher than it’s ever been set before.  Our first order of business was to put in place changes that longtime Albany observers thought would never happen.  We intend to march as far as we can in breaking new ground.

I can also tell you that the Senate leadership fight will ultimately open the door to action on legislation important to upstate communities, taxpayers, and workers.  And that’s my bottom line in all of this: we’re going to get a fair hearing on upstate New York’s challenges. We are going to restore upstate’s voice in New York government.  Upstate New York employers, workers, families, taxpayers, and communities have been left holding the shortest end of the stick this legislative session, and that has to change. We need to restart common sense policies to rebuild the upstate economy, protect our taxpayers, and create more opportunities for the owners of small businesses, our workers, and their families.