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NY Assembly Considers Rewriting Rules After Speaker’s Arrest

silvSheldon Silver’s 21-year reign as the speaker of the New York state Assembly is ending – a tectonic shift in state government that many reform-minded lawmakers say provides an opportunity to rewrite Albany’s political playbook.

Greater transparency. Less centralized power. Technological innovations to help lawmakers share information with constituents. More input by rank-and-file lawmakers on which bills get votes and who sits on which committees.

The first major changes have already been agreed to: Silver is out, and his successor will be chosen over the next two weeks.

Following two days of closed-door talks, the Assembly’s majority Democrats announced that Silver had agreed to relinquish his position by Monday. A new speaker will be chosen by Feb. 10. That will give time for speaker candidates to rally support and allow lawmakers to evaluate them openly.

“A change in the person doesn’t necessarily mean a change in the system, and that’s what we need,” said freshman Assemblyman Charles Barron, D-Brooklyn. “I think we have a real shot at changing how things happen. The people of this state are sick and tired of corruption and bad behavior.”

Silver was accused last week by federal prosecutors of influencing legislation and awarding grants to collect almost $4 million in kickbacks over a decade. He exercised strong central control and has been known as a consummate political insider.

He declined to immediately resign, predicting he’ll be exonerated.

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a Westchester Democrat, said they’re looking at internal reforms like changing staffing allotments, making committees more driven by members and less by staff, and having more legislators involved in leadership decisions, budget decisions and other issues. Another proposal on the table is to limit leadership posts and committee chairmanships.

Suggested external reforms include a ban or limit on outside income, Paulin said. She didn’t know the level of support on that, she said.

Candidates for speaker so far are Assembly members Carl Heastie of the Bronx, Keith Wright of Manhattan, Joseph Lentol of Brooklyn, Catherine Nolan of Queens and Majority Leader Joseph Morelle of Rochester, who will be the acting speaker until legislators vote Feb. 10.

Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, said she wants to hear candidates put forward their vision of how they want the chamber to work. One change Mayer would like to see: technological upgrades to help lawmakers communicate with constituents.

Mayer also wants to end the traditional “three men in a room” approach to government that sees big decisions made by the Assembly speaker, Senate leader and governor.

Freshman legislator Carrie Woerner from Saratoga Springs, who worked as an executive for a software publisher and at IBM, said she’ll be working with colleagues to try to put together a process for vetting the candidates. That’s exciting, she said, since for the past 20 years there’s only been one candidate.

“When a crisis like this happens, it is a good time to re-evaluate,” said Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy of Albany, who formerly worked on Capitol Hill. “The disclosure issues are going to be very important. And as much as we can do so members feel they have a voice in things.”


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