What to Know
- 2 of 3 state senators fail to show up for committee meetings they're assigned to attend, an I-Team analysis shows
- The I-Team reviewed more than 200 committee meetings -- all of last year's meetings -- and found a 35 percent overall attendance rate
- The State Assembly has rules requiring lawmakers to be physically present to cast committee votes, but the Senate does not
Playing hooky from school will generally get you bad grades. Skipping work might get you fired. But if you are a New York state senator, skipping your committee meetings is practically the norm.
An I-Team analysis of all of last year's committee meetings shows two out of three state senators fail to show up for the ones they’re assigned to attend.
The meetings are supposed to be opportunities for lawmakers to debate, vet and advocate for proposed legislation. But more often than not, the meetings are sparsely attended affairs held in nearly empty conference rooms with little discussion beyond opening pleasantries.
To measure committee attendance, the I-Team reviewed more than 200 committee meetings amounting to nearly two full days of video archived on the state Senate website. The overall attendance rate was 35 percent.
“I think New Yorkers would be very concerned to know the state lawmakers they pay so well with such nice benefits for a part-time job aren’t doing their entire job,” said Ken Girardin, a spokesman for the Empire Center for Public Policy, a government watchdog group.
New York state senators are paid a base salary of $79,500. They are expected to be in Albany about 60 days a year.
Unlike in the State Assembly, where rules require lawmakers be physically present to cast their committee votes, Senate rules allow members to send in “vote sheets” without ever showing up in person. The result is a lot of committee meetings where chairpersons simply move a list of bills forward based upon written instructions of absent members.
On one occasion last year, the Standing Committee on Rules approved 25 bills in just five minutes despite video showing fewer than half of the senators on the committee were physically present in the room.
Another time, the Standing Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks, and Recreation approved 17 bills in just five minutes. Only two of the 14 committee members were present.
Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice, a government watchdog, said Senate rules may actually incentivize poor committee attendance. Because it is nearly impossible for bills to get a committee vote without the blessing of Senate leadership, members of the minority party may feel as though there is little point in showing up to fight for their own bills, Norden said. Conversely, members of the party in power may have little incentive to show up, because their legislation is almost guaranteed to sail through.
“There isn’t an opportunity in the committees the way there is in some other states for dissension, for the ability to force a conversation or hearing if the chair or the majority leader in the Senate doesn’t want it to happen. So in that sense, it’s rigged,” Norden said.
That sense of inevitability leads to the death of thousands of bills in committee each year.
For example, last year Sen. Roxanne Persaud (D-Canarsie) proposed a bill to provide cash assistance to single mothers struggling to afford diapers. Sen. Tony Avella (IDC – Bayside), Chair of the Children and Families Committee, declined to bring the diaper bill to a vote.
Avella blamed Persaud for failing to push her own bill hard enough.
“She never asked for the bill to be moved,” Avella said. “She never called me or filled out the form to move the bill out.”
When asked why Persaud didn’t push harder to move her own bill out of committee, she suggested to do so would have been pointless.
“The vast majority of bills are shoved into committees by the majority and ignored,” Persaud wrote in a statement to the I-Team. “Clearly the Senate committee structure is broken and in need of serious reform.”
Another way for Persaud’s diaper bill to get consideration would have been for the ranking democrat on the Children and Families Committee, Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D- Fort Greene), to advocate for the legislation. Montgomery failed to show up at all five Children and Families Committee meetings last year. Montgomery declined to explain her absence.
In some cases, senators accept cash stipends to serve as ranking members on committees.
Of the 32 standing committees that were active last year, the I-Team found a dozen ranking members who missed three or more meetings.
Among them was Sen. Bill Perkins (D-Harlem), who accepted a $9,500 stipend to serve as the Ranking Member of the Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions Committee. Despite the bonus associated with his leadership position, video records show he failed to attend 6 of 7 Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions meetings last year. He also missed the first meeting of the committee in 2017.
Perkins, who is leaving the Senate to take a seat on the New York City Council, did not indicate where he was during those committee meetings but did say the committee meeting schedule can be challenging.
“Sometimes we have conflicts in terms of our committee assignments and we make decisions as to which ones we can attend and can’t attend,” Perkins said.
Other truant senators offered a similar reason for missing committee meetings. Although not all committees meet regularly, senators are routinely assigned to between 6 and 12 committees at the same time.
Perkins also suggested his decision to skip out on committee meetings was also influenced by a sense that his viewpoints would make little difference in meetings where Senate leadership selects only its favored bills as agenda items.
“[I]n the current power structure of the Senate, run by Republicans and the IDC, negotiations on bills do not occur in public at the committee meetings,” Perkins wrote in a statement to the I-Team. “[C]onstituent and district needs are more important than meetings where the result is pre-ordained.”
The I-Team reached out to Sen. John Flanagan, who leads the Senate Republicans, and Sen. Jeffrey Klein, who leads the IDC, a group of breakaway Democrats who caucus with the Republicans. They have not responded to questions about committee attendance.
For more than a decade, the Brennan Center has pushed for reforms to Senate rules so that physical presence would be a prerequisite for a senator to cast a vote in committee. Norden also said the Senate should reduce the overall number of committees and adopt rules giving members more power to force votes on proposed legislation even when a given bill doesn’t have enough support to advance out of committee.
“I do think there’s a purpose in seeing bills lose,” Norden said. “Often bills have a lot of popular support and if you can prevent them from ever even getting a vote, the public has no idea who’s keeping something that’s very popular from becoming law.”