This is the finale of a four-part series on an OBSERVER/Post-Journal debate between Republican Andy Goodell and Democrat Nancy Bargar for the 150th New York State Assembly seat. The candidates answered the following question: How can the state Assembly be reformed so that power held exclusively by the leadership is returned to all elected representatives?
In 2004, a study from the Brennan Center for Justice announced Albany was the home of the most dysfunctional state legislative body in the nation.
Andrew Goodell cited this ongoing analysis in his opening remarks and said he has looked at the underlying causes of New York's infamous distinction.
"The real problem is that the three leaders, the governor, the speaker and the majority leader, have too much power," he said. "The way to deal with that is to address that power structure, to decentralize it and empower individual legislators and open up the process."
It is time for a constitutional convention in Albany, Goodell said, to add language with respect to the state budget. It needs to go into effect by April 1, he said. The second issue to address at a convention would be an amendment to restrict what he calls "backdoor borrowing," which is the assembly's approval of taking on additional spending throughout the year. Goodell said this amounts to billions of dollars in debt, which is supposed to be voted on as part of the budget.
What he called a "fascinating opportunity to improve Albany" is to allow the Initiative and Referendum process for New York.
"This is an opportunity to allow individual taxpayers, with sufficient support and signatures, to get an issue on the ballot," said Goodell. Though it has been proposed by numerous governors in the past, he said state legislators are traditionally against it because it encroaches on their own power.
"Ultimately, power needs to reside in the people," he added.
According to Bargar, the Assembly's policy of "member items," New York's in-house version of "pork barrel" spending is unfair and should be removed altogether.
"The speaker right now has sole discretion in awarding member items," she said, "which is a way for him to play favorites as he doles out the taxpayers' money. With member items, assembly members are essentially bribing the voters with their own money. Frankly, it's money borrowed from future generations - those cardboard checks that show up in the newspapers with a member's signature in the signatory line - is really such a misrepresentation. That money doesn't even exist."
Bargar said she instead favors a series of "categorical bills" wherein each member of the Assembly votes to disperse funds according to the type of project.
While Goodell earlier introduced his support for an equal allocation of resources to members of state assembly, Bargar detailed her own ideas further. Under the current system the Assembly Speaker controls part of the member's salary, and she said by removing all stipends from committee leadership positions, all members would become more independent from the speaker.
She also hoped to transplant her past advocacy for downsizing the county legislature to her new role in the state Assembly. If people are serious about reform, she added, they might even look to Nebraska's example of a single legislative body.
But even in the current framework, she referenced other states' examples that allow minority party representatives to serve as committee chairs, and term limits, with the provision that lawmakers could return to office after an interim absence.
Goodell said the election of his party this term would be a step in the right direction for the state.
"I think an important way to change the complexion in Albany is to elect more Republicans to the Assembly," he said. "The reason is that the Republican minority is only a handful of votes shy of having enough members to block a veto override."
He said both candidates for Governor are talking about extreme cuts into such programs which are long favored by the assembly. This would signify a clear shift from what he said has been "one-man rule" of the Assembly Speaker for many years.
Bargar referred to her tenure in the county legislature, and she said in 1995 and 1997 she secured multiple party lines, including the recognition of the conservative party.
"I would put my fiscal records up against my opponent's at any point," she added.