Senate Approves Rules Reforms

George Winner

January 26, 2005

Albany, N.Y.-- The New York State Senate has approved a range of rules reforms, including a ban on the practice of so-called "empty seat" voting, that State Senator George H. Winner, Jr. (R-Elmira) said "changes the way the Senate does business and encourages an ongoing, open dialogue on reform."

Winner, beginning his first term as the representative of New York’s 53rd Senate District, said that he believes the reforms will help make the legislative process more accountable, open and responsive to citizens. He added that the Senate is preparing to act on additional legislation that would create a bipartisan Senate-Assembly task force to recommend even more changes.

"These rules changes represent a step forward in the spirit of government reform," Winner said. "They won’t change the face of state government overnight. There will continue to be disagreements, as there should be. But there’s an undeniable sense that momentum will continue to build and steadily move us toward a better legislative process."

The cornerstone of the approved rules changes imposes a ban on the widely criticized practice of "empty seat" voting. A new Senate rule will require members to be in their seats to vote on controversial legislation being debated in the Senate.

The reforms being advanced by the Senate begin to address most of the recommendations made by the Brennan Center for Justice. Reforms adopted by the Senate include changes to:

> limit individual committee assignments to seven, a move designed to allow members to become better versed in each committee and improve the working dynamics of the committee process;

> allow any member of a Senate committee to convene a public forum. Under prior Senate Rules, only committee chairs were empowered to convene a public hearing on legislation or policy issues;

> encourage legislative committees to increase the number of public hearings conducted by the committee, thereby providing increased opportunities for citizen comment and participation in the legislative process;

> encourage and expand the use of the Joint Conference Committee process, initiated by the Senate in 1995, to conduct public negotiations to settle differences over similar versions of legislation being considered by both houses of the Legislature;

>eliminate the ability of the Senate Majority Leader to "star" legislation. Under this practice, which has never been used by current Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a majority leader was allowed to unilaterally block floor action on any measure by "starring" the legislation, even after it had already moved through the committee process and onto the Senate floor; and

> double the time allowed for floor debates on legislation from two to four hours.

Winner said that the Senate will also examine expanding the broadcast of Senate sessions to a wider audience through cable outlets statewide.

"These rules changes will have little impact on other reforms that require the cooperation and support of the Assembly and govenor, like reforming the state’s budget adoption process or Medicaid," Winner said. "But these Senate rules changes do signal change, and that signals greater hope for a breakthrough on additional reforms."