Albany, New York – The group that coined the phrase “Dysfunctional Albany” has begun the New Year with a report that finds state government still sorely in need of reform. But NYU’s Brennan Center says that there’s hope that in the Senate, at least, things could be changing for the better.

New York University’s Brennan Center put a name to what many at the Capitol were feeling when it labeled New York State’s government the most dysfunctional in the nation in 2004. Now, nearly five years later, the group is back with an updated report. The Brennan Center’s Lawrence Norden says not that much has changed. Most major decisions continue to be made in secret, he says, by an extremely limited number of politicians.

“You basically have, on a lot of big issues, three men in a room,” said Norden, who says the governor and two majority party leaders still make all the major decisions in closed door meetings. “Not only is it undemocratic, it often leads to very flawed legislation.”

Norden says there has been one improvement. Senators and Assemblymembers now have to actually be in their seats to vote on bills. They can no longer vote by proxy and remain absent from the chamber for the day.

But Norden and other reform advocates say there’s new hope for reform, with the on-going changes in the Senate, and that perhaps 2009 will be the year when rank and file members achieve more control over legislation. Democrats have enough seats to form a slim majority, although all of the Democrats are still not yet committed to the present leader, Malcolm Smith. The party campaigned on a reform platform, and has promised to give more power to Republicans, who may be in the minority party in the Senate.

“They’re on the spot this week,” said Norden. “As to whether or not they really are about the reform that they’ve been talking about.”

The Brennan Center would like to see an end to what they say is the “leadership stranglehold” on which bills come to the floor. The report says committee members should be able to choose their own chairs. Currently, the leader of the Senate or the Assembly assigns the plum positions to favored legislators. The Brennan Centers also thinks legislators should be required to actually show up at the meetings of committees they serve on, and be present to vote. Most committee meetings are poorly attended.

E.J. McMahon, with the Empire Center, part of the Manhattan Institute, says Senate Republicans could benefit from taking up the reform issue, as well, and use it to one-up the Democrats.

“They should embrace this entire agenda,” said McMahon. “And, frankly, taunt the Senate Democrats who don’t vote with them to do it.”

McMahon says for decades, there’s been a traditional “gentleman’s agreement” in both houses to let the majority party run roughshod over the minority party. In the Senate, it was the Republicans over the Democrats, in the Assembly, he says, the Majority Party Democrats kept down the Republicans.

The reform groups say rules changes in the Senate and Assembly aren’t their only areas of concern, and they believe that the campaign finance system needs to be cleaned up as well. The Brennan Center report comes as the New York Post ran a news story on a leaked memo from a top Senate Republican aide. It called for using taxpayer funded Senate staff to help GOP Senators in their elections in 2010, and for assistance in winning back the Senate Majority. Using legislative staff to work on campaigns, though not illegal, is against the rules of the Senate.

Republican Leader Dean Skelos has disavowed the memo, even though the paper says the document claimed Skelos was briefed on the proposal. Blair Horner, with NYPIRG, says the directive was wrong on many levels.

“It’s both a disgrace and dumb,” said Horner, who said even though it’s believed that those practices occur, most don’t write it all down.

Horner says the Republicans are likely looking for a way to make up for an expected decline in campaign donations. In Albany, those in the majority party in each house traditionally gain the backing of powerful unions and other interest groups, who give large donations of cash and offer volunteers for phone banking and pamphlet distribution.

Despite that, Horner and the other government reformers say in 2009 lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, have been handed an “historic opportunity for change”.

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver takes issue with the Brennan Center report. Spokesman Dan Weiller says the report is “disappointing” and “misrepresents substantive reforms that have been made in the Assembly”.

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