Albany’s Old and New Deal-making

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Just how many men (and women) should be in the room when state leaders try to negotiate a budget, or anything else?

For years, we New Yorkers have been complaining about Albany’s “three men in a room” custom, which brings together the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate leader into a back room to negotiate deals out of the public eye. The sense has been that these three make all the decisions in secret, and legislators and the public have nothing to say about it.

Even before Gov. Eliot Spitzer took office, leaders began making small changes in this practice, occasionally gathering for public leaders’ meetings covered by the press. Spitzer has taken the changes a step further, inviting the leaders of the minority parties in each house and a few other legislators to take part.

The result was a session on May 16 described by reporters present as full of sniping, fingerpointing, grandstanding, taunting and giggling. At one point, Spitzer felt it necessary to assert his authority by saying, “This is my room and we’re going to play by my rules.”

Not what the public might have hoped for when it denounced the “three men in a room” way of getting things done.

So what happened? I think this is an important question, because the issue of leaders’ meetings seems to be going the way of other recent reforms in Albany. That is, state government moves away from the old way of doing things, but the new way doesn’t seem to be much of an improvement.

We complained about “empty-seat voting” – which recorded votes in the Legislature as affirmative if the legislator wasn’t present to vote – and we got rules requiring members to be in their seats to vote. But that didn’t change the fundamental process for passing bills – all bills that make it to the floor of either house are approved, suggesting that the real deals are still cut behind the scenes.

We railed about the 20-year string of late state budgets, and we got three years of nominally on-time budgets. But they were rushed into law and continued to raise spending well beyond the level of inflation, adding to the financial burden of government in the state that already has the highest state and local tax burden in the nation.

The power structure in Albany has responded at a superficial level to critics but has been unwilling or unable to really change how business is done. That’s not a surprise. Meaningful change is going to take a long, hard fight.

The prospects for real reform were the subject of a May 17 panel discussion that I participated in for an Issues Summit held by Buffalo’s business lobby group, the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership. Former Assembly Majority Leader Paul Tokasz, now working as a lobbyist, and Deputy Budget Director Kim Fine also took part, along with Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center.

Norden discussed the differences between lawmaking in Albany and Washington and pointed out that in Washington lawmakers hold public hearings on specific bills. You may be surprised to hear this, but that rarely happens in Albany. Public hearings do occur, but they are generally more broadly focused on an issue or the operations of a state agency. Interested parties have a chance to opine, but it’s difficult to get into the nitty-gritty details of what should be done without a bill on the table to debate.

Tokasz addressed the “three men in a room” issue and argued that the public’s perception has been wrong. While it may be the three leaders gathered to hash out deals, the legislative leaders represent the collective opinion of their caucuses. In other words, Assembly Democrats tell Speaker Sheldon Silver what they want, and not vice versa.

I still believe the public is left out of deal-making to an unacceptable degree. That’s the case because of how secretive and rushed the negotiating process is, especially around the budget. One case in point: I wonder if it would have been possible for state leaders to cut the political deal on school funding necessary to pass a budget — sending an additional $420 million to wealthier schools, mostly on Long Island — if the whole state had understood what was happening.

This argues for more time and more public debate on the budget and other issues facing the state. We may need to change how we talk about these goals in order to get state leaders to go deeper in making change. Rather than denouncing specific practices such as empty-seat voting and secret leaders’ meetings, reform advocates need to clearly communicate what New York needs: a genuine public airing of issues and options that gets down to specifics.

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