Q: How would you rate this year's Legislature in its efforts to reform and what it calls the Year of Reform in Albany?
A: Relatively speaking, it was a very successful year. "Relatively" because Albany usually does virtually nothing to advance reform and this year it did do something. Here are the reforms:
State lawmakers agreed to significantly improve oversight of those lobbying for government contracts.
They passed legislation that modestly strengthened regulation of state authorities, the budget process and the rules by which the legislature conducts its business (the Assembly did a better job on this than the Senate).
They plugged loopholes in the ethics and freedom of information laws.
They improved disclosure of campaign contributions at the local governmental level.
They even pledged to create a New York State "C-SPAN" that will begin airing in January.
But the big issues -- creation of an independent redistricting commission, comprehensive campaign finance reform and a radical overhaul of the ethics law -- remain unaddressed.
Q: How impressive was a session that saw the first on-time budget since 1984?
A: It was quite a spectacle. It really showed that the problem of late budgets rests almost entirely on the governor's and legislative leaders' lack of political will to get budgets done on time in the past. Getting the budget done on time allowed progress to be made in other areas, like political reform.
Q: What is the solution to the dysfunction of this State Legislature that is rooted firmly in the redistricting system and which takes the power of individual votes and places it in the hands of partisan political forces?
A: The Republicans in the Senate and the Democrats in the Assembly, with the acquiescence of the governor, cut a deal every 10 years -- a deal that results in rigged elections in New York State. Only 25 of the 212 state legislative districts have close enrollments between the two major parties.
Combined with a disgraceful system of campaign finance, New Yorkers are denied competitive elections. During the past 22 years, some 2,500 state legislative elections -- only 34 incumbents were defeated in the general election.
The solution must be to take the authority to draw legislative district lines out of the hands of lawmakers and put it in the hands of an independent redistricting commission staffed with civil servants. District lines should meet the needs of communities, not the re-election needs of the political parties. This will only occur if the next governor promises to veto any new set of district lines drawn by politicians instead of an independent commission.
Q: What will it take for the Legislature to truly reform itself?
A: In one word -- fear. Fear that failure to reform will result in defeat at the polls. It was voter anger in the 2004 election that created the climate for reform in 2005. But in order to finish the job, lawmakers must know that voters will hold them accountable at the polls in November of 2006.