Streams

The Ways of Albany: Deals Behind Closed Doors, Votes in the Dark of Night

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Empty Senate Chambers in Albany (Bob Hennelly/WNYC)

The New York State Senate finished up voting on the state budget in a middle-of-the-night session that ended at 4:30 AM Wednesday. It's part of a long standing Albany tradition of closed door negotiations and overnight voting on budgets and other issues.

For decades, it was known as the “three men in a room” style of decision making. The governor and the two majority party legislative leaders would meet behind closed doors in the governor’s offices and decide key issues, like the contents of the state budget. Members of the press stand outside the door to the meeting room waiting for news, sometimes for hours at a time. When leaders emerge, they often have little to say.
 
Earlier in March, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was asked about closed-door talks about increasing the state’s minimum wage.  

"There's no agreement until there's a total agreement," he said. "We've agreed we're going to continue to talk. That's the deal."

This year, instead of three men in a room, there are 4. The Senate is led by a coalition of Republicans and five members of a breakaway Democratic faction. The leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx, though new to the private meetings, has also proved adept at circumspection.
 
"Every time we come out of there it gets closer," he said after a closed-door discussion about minimum wage and tax credit proposals. "I think the purpose of this meeting was...the governor wants to make sure we are all still in town. It was really a head count that none of us left, so I think we're still moving in the right direction.”

Klein often leaves the meetings with Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos.
 
The leaders are often aware that their enigmatic answers can be frustrating. Speaker Silver, tongue in cheek, recently likened the budget process to another secretive tradition at the Vatican.
 
“We are continuing to make progress and hopefully there’ll be white smoke soon."
 
But the legislative leaders maintain that the private talks help to mold complex deals that would be in danger of unraveling if bits and pieces were reported to the public. 
 
The secrecy can also backfire, sometimes with embarrassing consequences.
 
Before the budget, lawmakers approved tough new gun control laws in January. Unlike in other states, there were no public hearings or discussions of the proposal. Governor Cuomo gave a special message of necessity to waive the normal three-day waiting period, and the bills were voted on immediately. 

Weeks later, lawmakers realized there was a problem with the law. It would ban the sale of high capacity ammunition clips that hold over 7 bullets, yet the 10 bullet clips would still be allowed at shooting ranges and competitions.
 
Cuomo was left in the awkward position of trying to explain that he is not rescinding, just changing, a key provision in the new laws. 
 
“It is inconsistent to say you can have 10 bullets at range or a competition, but you can’t have a magazine that can hold 10 bullets," he said. "You have to be able to have a magazine that holds 10 bullets.”  
 
For now, the governor and lawmakers have decided to postpone the ban.
 
When it was time to vote on the budget, Cuomo and the legislature agreed to let the bills go through the normal three-day waiting period before acting, so that the public could have a chance to read them. But after the three days were up, at precisely 12:01 AM, the Senate began voting, finishing up a few hours later in the dark.
 
Senate Deputy Republican Leader Tom Libous defended the all night session.
 
“The public doesn’t care because the bills have aged," he said. We’ll all go back home and do our thing. They just want to know 'Did you get the budget done?'"
 
Sue Lerner, with the government reform group Common Cause, says New Yorkers do lose something when government is not conducted in the open.
 
“We have concerns about the fact that the ultimate debate ends up being from 12:10 until 4:30 in the morning, and that that sends a message to ordinary New Yorkers that they aren’t really to be concerned about the process, and yet the budget is the part of state government which most directly effects ordinary New Yorkers, and where they should have an opportunity to see and hear their representatives debating.” 
 
The State Assembly takes up voting on the budget on Thursday. They say they plan to hold most of the debate in daylight.

Editors:

Julianne Welby

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