As the Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal threatens to serve as political quicksand and sink the rest of the legislative session in Albany, it’s important to look at how things have – and haven’t -- worked in the State Capitol this year.
The object lesson of Lopez running amok (and State Assembly Sheldon Silver not doing enough to stop him) shouldn’t be that lawmakers are piggy, it’s that they’re incredibly secretive. And secrets often allow major mistakes to be made.
The legislative session started with the rushed passage of a gun-control bill by Governor Cuomo. Among many other things, the much-ballyhooed law limited the size of magazines in guns to seven bullets. No hearings were held on the bill and there was no time for anyone to discover that seven-bullet magazines just don’t exist, forcing the bill to be amended.
Another highly-touted initiative of the governor’s – announced in January – was a bill that would level the playing field for women of the state. But lawmakers only got a glimpse of the actual bill this week, more than four months after Cuomo first announced his plans. Again, there has been little time for hearings or discussion – creating a last-minute debate over an abortion plank in the bill that may stymie the legislation before lawmakers go home in less than two weeks.
One of the most comic and symbolic moments of the legislative session came last month when good-government groups were literally shut out of a State Senate hearing on campaign finance reform and protested outside an open window during the proceedings. It was a public hearing without the public.
Making the Vito Lopez scandal more of a farce this spring was the bipartisan legislative ethics commission – a group that isn't accountable to either the State Senate or the Assembly. Members meet secretly (no one even knows where) and so is the commission's agenda. This group delayed the release of the state ethics commission report on Lopez and many believe that the creation of this group in 2007 has only erected one more roadblock to openness in Albany.
On top of all this is corruption; three state lawmakers were arrested this year in highly-embarrassing cases with the revelation that one of them was wearing a wire for federal investigators in an attempt to ensnare more of his colleagues. (Another corrupt lawmaker, Shirley Huntley, was also wired for sound in her Queens home where she taped some of her fellow lawmakers as part of a plea deal that fell apart).
New York may be the Empire State but the slapdash way that things are done in the State Capitol is like the kid who's constantly throwing together his term paper at the last minute. It's clear that Albany is a roomful of mirrors that need to be shattered. And then maybe someone can finally open up a window.