Motion for Senate Committee Consideration
While Albany finds itself embroiled in a deadlock over the State budget, a number of Senators were able to quietly advance pieces of legislation by taking advantage of a new procedural rule that allows sponsors to move their bills onto a committee agenda on their own initiative. Facing a May 1st deadline to utilize the new procedure, starting on Friday, April 30th, Senators advanced 190 bills by filing motions for committee consideration. Committee chairs now have 45 days from the date of filing to place those bills on their respective committee agendas.
Among other procedural changes that took effect this year, the motion for committee consideration is meant to empower individual Senators and combat the old adage of “three men in a room” controlling the fate of all legislation in Albany. These rules give sponsors new procedural tools to advance their legislation without necessarily having the support of committee chairs or Senate leadership.
As illustrated in the City Bar and Brennan Center's "Legislative Roadmap," once a motion for committee consideration is filed, a committee chair must place the bill on the agenda within 45 days. Once on a committee agenda, the bill will be debated and either voted on or put aside. Other new tools at the sponsor’s disposal are (1) a petition for consideration whereby a sponsor can move a bill directly to the floor for a vote by the entire Senate as long as the petition is signed by 35 of the 62 Senators (which is no small feat), and (2) a motion for chamber consideration whereby a sponsor can move a bill from 3rd calendar reading to a floor vote as long as the motion is approved by a majority of members.
These rules may seem superficial and unhelpful at first glance, particularly given the virtual deadlock in the Senate right now on most issues. However, the new rules should at least permit an opportunity for a public airing of issues that did not exist in the past. Take, for instance, the Dignity for All Students Act (“DASA”). This bill would amend the Education Law to authorize the Commissioner of Education to establish policies and procedures to afford all students in public schools an environment free of bullying in the form of harassment and discrimination that substantially interferes with a student’s ability to participate in school.
Sponsored by Senator Thomas Duane, DASA was first introduced in 2000 with a companion bill in the Assembly sponsored by Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell. The legislation has been introduced every year since and has consistently passed by wide margins in the Assembly (most recently on May 17 by a vote of 138 to 4 in favor). However, it has never been able to make it out of the Senate Education Committee. Senator Duane filed a notice for committee consideration on April 30th.
The reasons DASA, or any other bill for that matter, finds itself stalled in a committee vary. There may be opposition from committee members, constituents, interested organizations, or public agencies. The opposition may be substantive, political, fiscally related, or none of the above, but it almost certainly will lead to the bill being sidelined or amended. For some bills it is a matter of timing – a chair or sponsor might choose to hold up a bill so it has a better chance at passage. Other bills simply get lost in the shuffle, never having gained the interest needed to get noticed. Whatever the reason, a sponsor had very little power to force the committee chair to place the bill on an agenda. The new rules may change that dynamic and force debate on issues that were previously not publicly discussed.
The long-term impact of these new rules remains to be seen. In the short-term, however, there are 190 bills that may see a little more sunlight. The motion for committee consideration appears to have worked (at least in the short-term) for DASA – the bill was put on the Education Committee agenda 19 days after the motion was filed and was reported out of the Education Committee. The economic implications of DASA are now being analyzed by the Senate Finance Committee.
Putting a controversial bill on a committee agenda opens it to debate and scrutiny, helping to weed out the bad bills and make the good ones better. Senators will be given a chance to publicly voice their opinions in committee meetings that are now taped and webcast to the public. This leads to less speculation as to where a Senator stands on an issue or why a bill does not move. Bill sponsors will have a harder time explaining why they are not advancing legislation. These rules increase the flow of information, debate and accountability in Albany – and that is a necessary first step on a long road to reform.