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Once-Rare Events Show Progress of Reform

By State Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine

Last week, in this column, I discussed the previous week’s action by the Senate Agriculture Committee in support of farm workers, farmers and consumers through a bipartisan vote to kill the bill in committee. This is one sign that changes I pushed for and helped enact last year have begun to restore the people’s voice in state government.

This kind of vote has been a rarely seen occurrence over the past four or five decades in the New York State Senate. Legislation often goes to committee and never finds its way out, but rarely if ever does a committee bring up a bill then vote it down. The reason we saw it last week, is because of a combination of new rules enacted in January and July of 2009.

Under these new rules, the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act was given dual reference to the Agriculture Committee after a bipartisan request by the committee to review the legislation. It was given to the committee I chair on the grounds that this proposed law makes specific reference to the duties of the Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets, which the Agriculture Committee oversees, and because of its far reaching impact on our state’s 35,000 family farms.

These rules require that the secondary committee consider the bill. To do so in the case of this bill, additional information was gathered through a fair and open public hearing that featured opponents and advocates alike. This is consistent with rules stating that committee “chairs are encouraged to hold public hearings on legislation of important public interest.” What bill could be of broader public interest than a bill that will impact the very industry that provides us with the food we eat to live?

Once this hearing was completed, the sponsors of the bill filed a motion for consideration, about which the rules state: “Once a motion for committee consideration is filed, the chair of the committee shall place the bill on a committee agenda and schedule a vote within forty-five days.” That vote was scheduled by this committee and held on April 20. The legislation, in accordance with the rules, was given due process, brought to a legal vote and it failed on its merits.

It seems all too common these days for anyone who does not like the outcome of the democratic process to claim the process is flawed or was misused. In this case, the bill was considered on its merits. This is how all bills, especially the tough ones, should be handled. I’m proud to have not only supported these changes, but to have used them to protect consumers, farm workers and farmers.

In that same week we saw another rare occurrence—a bill that was defeated on the floor of the Senate. I joined colleagues from both parties to vote against a bill that would have given undue standing for frivolous lawsuits against new development. While I understand and support the intent to protect our environment, the bill lacked checks and balances to ensure we don’t end up putting the brakes on new job development in the state. The bill failed with just 29 votes in support.

When this happened for the first time in just about anyone’s memory last summer, one Albany reporter compared the defeat of a bill on the floor to a sighting of the Ivory-billed woodpecker, which is believed to be extinct. Since then, more than a handful of bills, have been brought to the floor and allowed to be defeated.

This is democracy in action. These new rules and these once-rare events show that individual legislators elected directly by the people have successfully wrestled power from the leadership heavy structure of New York State government. More needs to be done to empower individual lawmakers and the growing pains may be difficult, but the end result will be what our government is supposed to be: A representative democracy.