Inside scoop on bills

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Eye from Albany
April 2004

Inside scoop on bills
by Paul M. Bray

From time to time someone comes out with a book describing how a bill becomes a law. It usually follows the orderly track set forth in legislative rules and the constitution from bill introduction to approval by the Governor. Some books have nice diagrams showing the path from introduction to printing to assignment to a committee and so forth. It looks orderly and systematic. Yet, while these books get it right as far as they go, there still so much they miss.

Instead of talking about policy related subjects as the Eye usually does; I thought I would share some inside baseball information when it comes to legislation. Not that what I tell you will help much in getting a bill enacted, but it may lift some of the mystery of the legislative process.

The New York legislature produces a huge number of bills each year in both the Senate and Assembly. Last year a total of 17,687 bills were introduced yet only 698 became law. 190 bills were vetoed by the Governor. Many of these bills are called “carry-overs” or bills reintroduced each legislative session with little prospect of ever becoming a law. Others are so-called “one house” bills introduced to satisfy a constituent with no intention to seek passage of the bill or bills so ideological that the sponsor knows there is no way the other house would ever consider it.

“It is not pretty” one insider told me as we discussed how bill production continues to go up and up while the number of bills that become law goes down. 1990 was the last year there were as many as 1000 bills enacted into to an end to law.

At the same time this trend continues, the bills that become law are less and less significant. 20 to 25 of the bills enacted in 2003 were simply budget extenders to keep government going after the budget deadline was missed. Another 30 to 50 bills were special acts that may, for example, ratify a municipal action that failed to conform to the law. Many other bills are extenders that the legislature has to do periodically to keep some program or other going.

There are perhaps a few explanations for why the legislative process has become increasing less productive in law making. Once upon a time when the State budget was done on deadline, the budget was more of a financial document. Increasingly, especially under Governor Pataki, the budget has become a vehicle for policy making. That has two results: more issues formerly addressed in separate legislation are now folded into the budget process and by the time budget is finally decided much of the energy has been sapped that would to go into the end of the session, rush to adjournment flood of law making.

The gridlock on real law making may also be the result of the strengthening of the legislature. It is too much of a stretch to call New York’s legislature a proactive branch of government when it comes to creating innovative programs or reform, but it is no longer the reactive branch that waited around to act on legislation handed down from the Governor and executive branch. With increasing legislative staff as well as more and more lobbyist, the ability to bottle up legislation out paces the pressures to enact laws.

Yet, bills continue to become law. The powerful and connected know how to game the system. Bills to create cultural trusts like the pattern setting one years ago for the apartment tower at the Modern Museum of Art in New York City often appear out of the blue just as the legislature is about to recess or, in effect, finish its business for the year. While the legislative rules provide deadlines for bill introduction, in fact, it is often the bills introduced well past the deadline that become law.

Persistence can work as Assemblyman Pete Grannis, (Dem. from NYC) has proven. For a decade he was able to pass legislation in the Assembly authorizing municipalities to use the land use technique of transfer of development rights (TDR) only to have the bill killed in the Senate by lobbyists for developers. Finally, some developers on Staten Island decided that TDR would work for them and they got their association to back off its opposition. So, a law was made. It took Assemblyman Grannis 18 years to Shepard into law the fire safe cigarette legislation. Finally, volunteer firemen got behind the bill and tobacco interests and their money lost to grass roots power. Big money doesn’t always win.

The odds of a bill becoming law are very slight and the law making process is certainly not efficient in any reasonable sense of the word, but given the diversity of interests and the multitude of competing needs at stake for finite resources it might not be so bad after all.