As Americans celebrate the Fourth of July with barbecues, beer and Hudson River fireworks, New Yorkers—particularly the elected variety—can reflect on the sorry condition of their own state government. In decades past, Albany hasn’t exactly been a beacon of democracy. But things have gotten decidedly worse over the past month, with the Senate deadlocked in a power struggle that has stifled any semblance of legislative action. When calmer heads prevail (we’re not holding our breath), our representatives must take some solid steps toward reform, addressing not only the conditions that contributed to the June coup and ensuing confusion, but larger endemic problems as well.
The first step would be convening a Constitutional convention to identify some of the larger, structural changes that our current representatives would be unlikely to make themselves. Though we doubt it would ever happen, strong arguments can be made for getting rid of our two-chamber system and creating a unicameral legislature.
At the very least, one reform distasteful to incumbents is a must: term limits for state office holders. Yes, in an ideal world limits should be only in voters’ hands, but Albany is in dire need of fresh blood. To make sure the legislature keeps some form of institutional memory and legislative experience, the limits could be generous: maybe five two-year terms.
Another way to create more competitive elections and temper the power of incumbency would be instituting some smart campaign finance reforms. Public matching funds, reasonable donation limits and strict enforcement should all be on the table.
Part of the reason the Senate leadership struggle was so pitched is because the majority essentially controls redistricting, a process that has long been used to protect majority incumbents and target opponents. Independent redistricting is the only way to ensure this critical process does not become politicized and that citizens are fairly represented.
Finally, one change that even our current elected leaders could endorse would be defining a replacement process for a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office. The state has been without one three times in the last 40 years, and the Senate’s chaos shows just how important this tie-breaking position this can be.
We, like many New Yorkers, have been disgusted by the lack of professionalism and cooperation, not to mention bald-face power grabbing, which has defined the past few weeks in Albany. But if this turmoil becomes the tipping point for real reform, then voters may have gotten something out of their leaders after all.
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