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State Senator David Paterson on Albany Reform

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Daily News Interview: David Paterson

David Paterson, the Harlem Democrat who is minority leader of the state Senate, talked with the Editorial Board about the morass in Albany and current efforts to reform it.

Question: The Legislature, widely known now as the nation's worst, has long defied calls for reform, but this year many lawmakers are discussing change. Why?

Answer: I think what changed the whole scenario, just to show you how paranoid legislators can be, was the loss of a Democratic Assembly member and the loss of a few Republicans. I think it shook up the Albany culture, and all of a sudden there were, like, 19 reform packages that everybody came out with.

Q. One of the criticisms is that legislators have ceded total control to the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader. Why would elected officials do that?

A. What has been evolving in Albany for a number of years is a power grab in which people who have gotten elected to office with all kinds of idealistic views swallow them and sacrifice themselves in a helpless, hopeless servitude to the interests of everybody but their own district. We have one major party, the incumbo-crats, and their prime interest is patronage and contracts. They couldn't care less, not only about the public, but even about the ideologies of the people who live in this state.

Q. Another criticism is that the Legislature allows empty-seat voting, meaning lawmakers are counted as voting yes for every measure even if they are not there. You've defended empty-seat voting.

A. The real reason they allow people to be out of the chamber during votes is that there was a tremendous number of complaints from advocates and constituents. Somebody brings a school class up to Albany. "Where's the senator?" "Well, he's in the chamber." And honestly, there were more senators in the chamber doing crossword puzzles because they didn't want to bother with the public that came all the way to Albany to see them. I have conceded that empty-seat voting sounds very sexy. But there are 50 ways that my colleagues can come to work and not do any work. This is one of the least offensive.

Q. What is the most offensive then?

A. I'll tell you what's most offensive: the committee system. Committee chairmen have absolutely no power. All we do now is vote for bills when the majority leader decides. Our committees should act as they do in Washington and even in local governments around the state, like city councils. They have committee meetings, do legislative markups where they actually rewrite the bills right there in committee, and they have outside experts testify.

Q. Why haven't individual legislators rebelled?

A. There's endemic Stockholm Syndrome. You're afraid to do anything, but you fall in love with the people abusing you.

Originally published on December 17, 2004

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