Taxpayers foot the bill for for state lawmakers' fruitless --
and short -- sessions

Tuesday, May 20, 1997, Albany Times Union
SARAH METZGAR Capitol bureau

ALBANY -- Last Wednesday, with a late state budget and unresolved issues like rent control and welfare reform, you'd have expected the state Senate to be in session.

It was: from 10:06 a.m. to 10:41 a.m.

Were the senators exhausted from their session the day before? Probably not. That afternoon, senators had started their session day at 3:07 p.m. -- and ended it at 3:45 p.m. And the day before that, they had been in the chamber from 3 p.m. to 4:20 p.m.

Back in June, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno had criticized the Assembly for keeping its members in Albany when there wasn't enough work to do, saying that "keeping the Legislature in session costs taxpayers a considerable amount of money.'' But last week, Bruno's Senate met for three days -- at an estimated cost of $15,000 a day -- without debating or acting on any of the major unresolved issues.

"The taxpayers are not getting their money's worth out of the Legislature,'' said Blair Horner, a lobbyist for the New York Public Interest Research Group. "I think they have a difficult time justifying now why they should be here every day.''

Sen. Neil Breslin, an Albany County Democrat, agreed. Asked Monday whether the Senators were doing enough work to justify a three-day-a-week session, he had a quick answer: "In my opinion, absolutely not.''

The taxpayers have to foot the bill for each lawmaker's food and lodging, which ranges from $89 to $130 a day and is set by the distance they have to travel to get to Albany.

In the 150-member Assembly, the estimated cost of a session day is $53,000. From May 5 to 14, the Assembly held four session days ranging from just over three hours to four hours.

John McArdle, a Bruno spokesman, claims the short Senate days are a non-issue. The Senate averages an acceptable daily session length of 1 hours, he said, and passed an impressive 443 bills through last Wednesday -- significantly more than the 370 bills that passed in the Assembly.

But only 74 two-house bills have passed -- the only bills that matter and have a chance to become law. The vast majority of bills passing right now are one-house bills with dubious futures.

"All we're doing is addressing non-controversial items,'' Breslin said. ``There is no accountability to address major items before us: budget, rent control, welfare reform. No one even talks about them.''

That's what irks people like Andrew Greenblatt, executive director of New York Common Cause. Greenblatt doesn't want to send legislators home -- he wants the state's 211 senators and Assembly members to do more substantive work.

"The problem is not that there isn't work to be done,'' Greenblatt said. "The problem is they're not doing their work.''

Critics say rank-and-file lawmakers have little to do, because the big decisions are made by the state's three leaders: Bruno, Gov. George Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

"It's a reflection of what is wrong with the place -- it's a symptom of a dysfunctional system,'' said Horner of NYPIRG. "The system has broken down. Decisions don't get made until June 15, so they go into session and there's nothing to do. Neither house is able to address agreed-to, two-house bills because so many are bargaining chips for the big ugly in June when rent control and the budget are decided.''

On Monday, for example, the three leaders met on the budget for a total of about 30 minutes and achieved next to nothing. There was no agreement on rent control -- or even any progress. There was no agreement on how much money the state has to spend, so there is still a gap of about $500 million over revenues. Bruno said they'll try again on Wednesday and in the meantime, ``I would hope that I and the rest of the members would try and do business as usual, as much as we can.''

Silver argues the Legislature is being productive. The two houses are close to reaching an agreement on coastal insurance, he said Monday, and are close on another plan to reduce energy costs for economic development purposes.

"We're talking about an awful lot of issues that are not budget-related and are not rent-related,'' Silver said. "There are pressing issues that are moving toward resolution.''

Pataki said he is hoping -- but not particularly confident -- that a new budget can be in place by June 20.

"Unless there is movement by the Assembly, we will not meet that date,'' Pataki said. "It is not impossible, but it is difficult.''

None of the critics expect leaders to shorten the session week -- which would save taxpayers approximately $68,000, when things are slow.

"They like being here -- they get their per diem and they're treated like royalty,'' said Horner, who earlier in the day held a news conference in which he said lawmakers have held a record-breaking 180 fund-raising events during session. "They go home to their districts, and their constituents are complaining that the sewage system smells.''