New York’s huge budget deficit—$15.4 billion in the next 15 months—will force difficult choices in terms of government services and tax policies for years to come. To engage intelligently in that debate, New Yorkers need far more information than we now receive from Albany.

As the Brennan Center for Justice observes in “Still Broken,” a report on state legislative reform released this month, the Assembly and Senate maintain Web sites that are poorly organized and contain few of the products of the lawmaking process. Well into the information revolution, the legislature acts as if we’re still in the technological era of Pong. Earlier this week, the new majority leader of the State Senate, Malcolm Smith, took a small step forward by adding a commitment to transparency in the Senate’s new operating rules. They now say: “[The Majority Leader] shall, to the extent practicable, use the Internet and other electronic media to provide access to the public policy debates, decision-making process and legislative records of the Senate.”

We are hopeful that the sun will soon begin to shine in that chamber. But the Assembly rules on transparency are unchanged—that is, the body will likely remain opaque.

As of last session, the legislature’s two houses posted calendars, press releases and live only video feeds on their sites, yet little to nothing from the actual lawmaking process. Both houses offer coloring books for kids, but no record of votes on bills in their education committees. In fact, there are no records of committee votes available. Tracking a bill on either chamber’s site is frustrating if you don’t know the bill’s number. California and Connecticut offer models of legislative transparency.

California’s site includes a trove of information, including daily journals and videos of floor proceedings. Connecticut’s site offers committee minutes, vote tally sheets and streaming video of proceedings.

In Mexico, federal agencies must post budgets, public employee salaries, contracts, grants and permits on the Internet. In contrast to the legislature, New York’s executive branch took noteworthy steps last year to increase public information on the Internet:

—The Paterson administration’s budget Web site ( includes up-to-date documents and agency submissions describing their programs.

—Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s Project Sunlight ( offers easily accessible data about elected officials, campaign finance, lobbyists, legislative member items, and registered corporations and charities.

—Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released Open Book New York (, a searchable inventory of 60,000 active state contracts and expenditure data for 3,100 local governments and more than 100 state agencies.

Though still in their infancy, these sites offer the promise of more governmental transparency in the future. They—as well as Web pages in other states light-years ahead of ours—should prod our legislature to follow their example. This now seems likely in the Senate.

In New York, records of the legislature and other governmental entities are available to citizens by request, under the state Freedom of Information Law. But should it be necessary to make a formal request for public documents in the information age? The law sets a minimum standard, yet public officials should be proactive in releasing documents.

Freedom of Information Law requests can take days, weeks or even months. By the time a citizen gets the requested information, it may be too late to make use of it.

Sometimes information is available, but only in a format that makes it difficult to decipher. For example, both the Senate and Assembly publish reports detailing office expenditures of their 212 combined members, but the reports are released as paperback books—making it hard to compare spending by individual legislators.

Software programmers at the Empire Center for Public Policy spent 60 hours reformatting the data to allow searches on The site also includes the entire state payroll; payrolls of 19 public authorities and the City of New York; legislative pork barrel projects; and 1,400 teacher union and school superintendent contracts. But while the center’s work is important, the burden should be on government, not private groups, to make this information accessible.

In its 2007 annual report, the state’s Committee on Open Government proposed amending FOIL to create a policy of “proactive disclosure” by “requiring agencies to post records on their Web sites that are clearly public and frequently requested when an agency has the ability to do so without undue burden or cost.”

The advantages of such disclosure are obvious: Citizens can access information instantly and for free; government is spared the administrative burden of complying with duplicative requests for the same records. That’s a win-win for the public and government.

The State Legislature can score another win-win for greater transparency: First, by posting on the Web all its public records—hearing and floor debate transcripts, attendance records, voting records, etc.; and second, just in case, by amending FOIL to require proactive disclosure.

The Assembly and Senate offer coloring books for kids, but no record of votes on bills in their education committees. Andrew Stengel is director of national election advocacy for the Brennan Center for Justice.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

You may also like

Bear market spells big trouble for NY state and city budgets

Wall Street generates an outsized share of New York’s tax revenue, so the recent drop in stock prices should worry both Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams. Read More

NY officials covered up more than just nursing-home deaths

Gov. Cuomo’s coverup of nursing-home deaths revealed the stunning lengths to which he and his staff go to keep damning information from the public. But few New Yorkers may realize that such behavior is actually standard operating procedure throughout mu Read More

Calling Tax Cut “Theft,” Cuomo Continues to Push For Federal Bucks With Phony Math

The results of this week’s Georgia Senate runoffs, assuring Democrats will soon control both houses of Congress, as well as the White House, had to come as a huge relief to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Read More

Students Need Reforms, Not HEROES

Families and businesses are watching their bottom lines and stretching each dollar. But House Democrats are pushing a plan to prevent America’s schools from doing the same thing. Read More

Washington shouldn’t fund NY’s “normal” budgets

With the coronavirus lockdown continuing to erode tax revenues, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has turned up the volume on his demands for a federal bailout of the New York state budget. In a weekend briefing, the governor repeated his estimate that the Empire State will need help closing a deficit of $10 billion to $15 billion. “I don’t have any funding to do what I normally do,” he said. Read More

Cuomo’s Plate Spinning

Governor Cuomo’s license plate design contest was a PR ploy masking a nickel-and-dime revenue raiser. Read More

How Cuomo is cooking New York’s books

When lawmakers in Albany passed the state budget last spring, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared it “both timely and fiscally responsible.” Timely was true enough. But fiscally responsible? Not so much. Read More

Cuomo’s SALT Flop

By midnight Monday, more than 9 million New Yorkers will have filed their income tax returns for 2018. And most will then have cause to wonder what the Great New York SALT Panic of 2018 was all about. Read More


Sign up to receive updates about Empire Center research, news and events in your email.


Empire Center for Public Policy
30 South Pearl St.
Suite 1210
Albany, NY 12207

Phone: 518-434-3100

General Inquiries:

Press Inquiries:


The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.

Empire Center Logo Enjoying our work? Sign up for email alerts on our latest news and research.
Together, we can make New York a better place to live and work!