There’s an old commercial that teasingly asked television viewers, “Is this any way to run an airline?” The answer, of course – this was self-promotion, after all – was, “You bet it is.” If anyone ever applied that slogan to the New York State Legislature, the response would have to be severely edited before it would be printed in a family newspaper.
As News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious pointed out in Monday’s editions, this Legislature is not one given to sober and serious consideration of most measures that come before it. Indeed, its habits are more akin to those of a distracted student – cramming at the end of the semester, pulling all-nighters, guessing on the multiple-choice questions. Who cares, it’s only government action affecting the lives of almost 20 million people, right?
It’s hard to see it any other way in light of the figures reported by Precious. Consider: For the five months from the Jan. 6 start of this year’s legislative session until June 2, and over 50 session days, lawmakers passed 102 bills, including those related to the annual state budget.
But between June 6 and the end of session 12 days later, lawmakers passed more than five times as many bills – 516 of them – including 143 that were introduced in the waning days. And at least 26 of those bills dealt with substantial issues, including expanded breast care screenings, restricting access to opioid painkillers, relaxing rules governing Sunday morning alcohol sales and legalizing daily fantasy sports.
How many of those bills were actually understood and evaluated by most legislators? How many were even read, let alone understood?
Conversely, how many were rushed through to benefit a special interest, a lobbyist or a donor? Indeed, the lobbyists and their patrons benefit from the rush to get out the door. They know lawmakers are facing a late-night session to clear the deck of work and that they may be more easily worn down as their escape from Albany comes into view.
This much is certain: It’s no way to run a Legislature.
Yet, it happens year after year with no real prospect of change. If it doesn’t count as corruption – with which this state government is rife – it’s an emollient for it. During an intense period of deal-making, back-scratching and horse-trading, shortcuts are inevitable. Shortcuts translate into a lack of transparency, and that facilitates corruption.
At a minimum, it facilitates willful blindness. Many lawmakers never read the legislation on which they place their stamp of approval. Instead, in time-honored Albany fashion, rank-and-file legislators simply do what their leaders tell them to do. It’s no accident that all bills that come to the floor of either chamber always pass. They’re the ones the leaders have allowed through the gate.
One of those shortcuts is the long-abused “message of necessity” that New York governors are allowed to issue to bypass the three days otherwise required to “age” a bill – that is, to provide at least a little time for public examination and comment. Since that tool was created in 1938, governors have used it routinely to avoid the sometimes contentious consequences of democracy.
But here’s the thing: Nobody ever said democracy was the most efficient form of government; only that it was the best. It is, as Winston Churchill observed, the worst form of government, except for all the others.
By the way, that airline slogan belonged to National Airlines, which was eventually subsumed into Pan American World Airways, which later declared bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the New York State Legislature chugs along year after year doing things that would drive any other enterprise out of business. Go figure.