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Lawmakers passing fewer bills, more Constitutional Amendments, analysis shows

A look at the 2013 New York State Legislature's session by the numbers finds the recently concluded session resulted in the passage of fewer bills, but more constitutional amendments, as well as a wide range of participation by individual lawmakers.

Bill Mahoney, with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), has spent the days since the legislative session concluded analyzing streams of data. He found the Senate and Assembly passed 650 bills, which is one the lowest numbers in decades, and part of a recent trend.

“It seems like a new reality in Albany where they’re not passing over 1000 bills (a year), like they used to,” Mahoney said.

He says part of the reason is that more unrelated policy items have been approved as part of the annual state budget.  

The change coincides with new-found powers, discovered by former Gov. David Paterson that enables governors to force their agenda through the legislature as part of a budget bill, if the deadline passes for the new fiscal year.

This year for instance, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers included a phased-in hike of the state’s minimum wage in the spending plan, rather than vote on the measure on it’s own merits, Mahoney said.

“This year they had to vote on it along with every other part of the $130 billion state budget,” he said.

Mahoney says another reason is the on-going recession, and years of tight budgets, which leaves little extra money for new programs that would require legislation. And he says there was gridlock in the state Senate between Republicans and Independent Democrats who have a power sharing coalition. The two factions could not agree on campaign finance reforms, or a portion of a women’s equality act that includes abortion rights.   
The NYPIRG analysis also found that the number of constitutional amendments has increased. Most years just one or two are approved, but this year, there were eight. They include expansion of gambling casinos, allowing judges to serve until age 80, reforming the state’s redistricting process next time around in 2020, and letting the legislature go paperless, and access bills electronically.

Voters must review all of them at the ballot box -- six in 2013, and two in 2014.

Mahoney also looked at the performance of individual lawmakers, including how often they participated in debates. He found Sen. Liz Krueger, of Manhattan, who is the designated lead debater for the Senate Democrats, uttered the most words -- 40,064. On the other end of the spectrum, Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat who sits with the Republicans, spoke just one word on the floor.

“That was ‘here’ when they were taking roll call on the first day of the session,” Mahoney said.

The lawmakers who missed the most floor votes of the session include members under indictment. In the Assembly, it was Democrat William Boyland of Brooklyn, who missed 809 votes. Boyland, who has been arrested three times in recent years on various corruption charges, was absent from voting nearly 75 percent of the time, the NYPIRG analysis found.

Former Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson, also of Brooklyn, missed the most votes in of any Senator with 318 absences. Sampson was charged with embezzling nearly half a million dollars in April.

“He did have several distractions this year, notably being taken away in hand cuffs in the middle of the session,” Mahoney said.  

The analysis also looked at which lawmakers had the best sense of humor, and found Sen. Tom Libous, a Binghamton Republican, and GOP floor leader, made remarks that elicited laughter around three dozen times.  

The analysis found that the bulk of votes in both chambers were unanimous, and that there was strong loyalty to party conferences.   

The most independent lawmaker, overall, was Sen. Greg Ball, a maverick Republican from the Hudson Valley. He voted differently than the three Senate leaders around 85 percent of the time.

Cuomo sent far fewer of what’s known as messages of necessity in the 2013 session. They are special directives to forgo the legal three day waiting period between when a bill is introduced and when the legislature can actually vote on it.   

Some past governors routinely issued over 100 messages of necessity a year, says Mahoney. In 2013, Cuomo issued just three.

After the governor was widely criticized for using a message of necessity to push through rapid passage of gun control measures back in January, Cuomo avoided the messages until the final day of session, when he says he needed to make technical corrections to bills allowing for gambling expansion and creation of tax-free zones at college campuses.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.