Reform, reform. It becomes everyone’s cry at this time of the year, and certainly there is always good reason to look anew at how state government can improve. Over the last two legislative sessions, the senate approved rules changes and reforms to improve the legislative process and make it more efficient, open, and accountable, including:
• Ban on ‘empty seat’ voting – Senators now have to be in their seats to vote on bills that are placed on the controversial calendar instead of allowing automatic ‘yes’ votes unless they act to vote against a bill;
• Elimination of party line voting – Senators must vote individually on all bills before them;
• No proxy voting in committees – Senators must now cast their votes directly, either through their personal attendance at committee meetings or, in extraordinary cases, by submitting to the committee chair a signed official committee voting sheet that indicates their approval or disapproval on each bill considered at that day’s committee meeting;
• Minimize irregular committee meetings – Limits senate committee meetings held off the floor during session and encourages more regularly scheduled committee meetings so more members, and the public, can attend;
• Committee staff hiring – Formalizes the senate policy regarding the hiring and firing of committee staff by senate committee chairmen;
• More public meetings – Senators may call a public forum on an issue within the jurisdiction of the committee;
• Proportional representation on standing committees – the number of majority and minority members on senate standing committees will be changed to increase minority representation on committees;
• Other committee reforms – The senate has acted to reduce the number of committee assignments to no more than seven per member, where practicable; limits the Rules Committee’s ability to move legislation to the floor; expands opportunities to petition bills from committee; similar bills will be concentrated on committee agendas; use the Rules Committee to expedite action on future Rules changes; expedites local bill and home rule process to help ensure that local bills are acted on earlier in the session, easing the end of session legislative logjam and reducing the number of messages of necessity;
• Expanded time for debate – Senators have a total of four hours to discuss each bill being debated by the Senate;
• Elimination of the majority leader’s “star” – We canned a senate rule that permits the majority leader to unilaterally block floor action on any bill by “starring” the legislation;
• Additional Information for messages of necessity – We now insist that the sponsor of a bill explain and give additional information on the need for a special message from the governor that bypasses the regular bill process;
• Conference committees – We encourage expanded use of joint conference committees on the budget and other legislation;
• Televised coverage of senate sessions – The senate expanded the broadcast of senate sessions to a statewide audience by pursuing cable outlets throughout the state, enabling more New Yorkers to view senate proceedings on cable television.
The senate also has fought for budget reform. We have repeatedly worked for measures to reform the state budget process and our work helped deliver two consecutive on-time budgets through the use of public budget conference committees, public leaders’ meetings, expedited revenue agreements and a set schedule for budget negotiations.
The senate has continued to initiate budget reform legislation. Most recently, the legislature gave first passage to a senate budget reform constitutional amendment (S.3195) that would address concerns raised by the Court of Appeals. The bill would prohibit the governor from changing state law in budget appropriation bills.
This year, the legislature also approved a senate plan (S.8414) that would help ensure an on-time budget every year by: changing the start of the fiscal year to May 1, creating an independent budget office, establishing the use of budget conference committees, and requiring extensive multi-year financial plans.
Senator Seward’s office web site is www.senatorjimseward.com.