Friday, November 21, 2008

The Old "New Wind"

There seemed to be endless talk this week in Albany of a "new wind blowing" across New York state government. Unfortunately that breeze has yet to reach 1450 Western Avenue.

The pay-to-play Legislative Retrieval Service is now offering their clients the ability to access 2009 pre-filed bills while the "public" LBDC site remains in the 2008 session. When will this be updated? Why are these two sites, run by the same inefficient state commission not coinciding with one another? We cannot expect the legislature to police themselves, so we call upon General Cuomo to fulfill his promise to make the legislative system more accesible to the average New Yorker.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Lords Giveth, and They Taketh Away

For a brief moment, I thought the Legislature unlocked the doors to their real-time database, LRS. Throughout the budget process, the Legislative Bill Drafting Commission (LBDC) updated the public's website in time with the fee-based subscription service. This was a monumental advancement and demonstration of the LBDC's capability to deliver the Public's information to the Public. This open window, this deliverance of information to the Public was quickly closed and shut off. Incomprehensible arrogance.

To their credit, the Legislature did make available LRS' database during the budget process, so that the public had access to all versions of the budget bills as well as the ability (if one knew the bill numbers) to view legislation introduced that day. The Legislature, however, deserves no accolades or congatulatory commentary on this provision. It is there inherent responsibility to inform the Public of their business. Business has gone back to the usual pay-to-know profitability tactics employed by the Legislature, and their grey-lined public-funded, privately used entity, LRS.

Just so we're clear here, the Legislature approved of, and the Governor signed S6801, the Legislature and Judiciary Budget. Within the budget is a line item for the Computer Services Fund. That fund subsidizes the private LRS, while your tax dollars contributed $1.5 mil. That does nothing to note the appropriation for LBDC, whose charge it is to maintain the database.

The NYS Legislature is defrauding the public of their ability and right to know the People's business. The brief space in which they allowed unfettered access is a penny tossed at an invaluable effort. By holding this information from the public, the Legislature mocks the tenants of Democracy.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Blair-Buy-Back

Blair Horner announced today that he'll return to his former post as Director of NYPIRG effective Monday. This announcement floats a number of questions to the surface of thought. The most glaring query for me is, why the sudden change? To my knowledge a two-week notice is appropriate for all areas of employment.

Horner claimed that his interest in advocacy work, coupled with the development of Project Sunlight placed him in a position to reasses his future with the AG's office. Okay, but I don't buy for a minute that Horner thinks of Project Sunlight as complete. He says he's an idea man, and that the current discussion focuses more on technology. What about AG Cuomo's idea of opening up the LRS database to the public? That idea has yet to enter the physical froum of Project Sunlight. Where is my tax-funded search-engine?

At any rate, Blair will be once again directing NYPIRG and that is a welcome return for good-government policy wonks everwhere. The abrubt departure aside, I'm glad Blair's conscience bought him back from the ease of State pensions and static perks.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rays in Parts

The NYS Assembly web page is improved, partially. I've found that introduced legislation is now available on the site on the day a bill is introduced. This is a welcome step towards bringing the elected Legislature in stride with the advancements of the 21st century and the innate obligation they have to the public to release this information.

But the released information only goes so far. In the case of Senate Bill S-7224, the Bill title, Same As, first action (Committee Referral), and areas of law amended appear. But who introduced the bill? Where is the bill text? Who am I to call, if this legislation affects me? All of this information is available on LRS, the afore-ranted pay-to-play site the Legislature sells to special interests and State Agencies. Yes, state agencies, whom the Legislature helps appropriate money to. In short, the agencies rely on the Legislature for millions or billions of dollars in tax-payer appropritations, one of which is siphoned right back to the law-makers kitty called the Computer Services fund.

I've also noticed that the Assembly site updates bills moving along the legislative process as well. As an example, Assembly Bill A-54 advanced to the 3rd Reading calendar today, and the action is available on the Assembly's page today. It won't appear on the LBDC's page until tomorrow.

Still, with this brief break in the clouds, there is no way for the public to search for this information. How can the public view all bills introduced today in one screen? Why can't the public view this? Partly cloudy, followed by showers.

Friday, March 14, 2008


Here is section 84 of the NYS Public Officers Law:

§ 84. Legislative declaration. The legislature hereby finds that a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government.

As state and local government services increase and public problems become more sophisticated and complex and therefore harder to solve, and with the resultant increase in revenues and expenditures, it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible.

The people's right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality.

The legislature therefore declares that government is the public's business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government in accordance with the provisions of this article.

The Legislature then writes themselves out of FOIL applicability. From Section 86:

1. "Judiciary" means the courts of the state, including any municipal or district court, whether or not of record.

2. "State legislature" means the legislature of the state of New York, including any committee, subcommittee, joint committee, select committee, or commission thereof.

3. "Agency" means any state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office or other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function for the state or any one or more municipalities thereof, except the judiciary or the state legislature.

Then Compare Sections 87 - access to agencies, and 88 - access to the Legislature. See how much information you can get from a FOIL request submitted to either entity...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

1984: Year of Our Lording Over the Public

1984 was a seminal year for the NYS Legislature. They faced competition in the delivery of legislative information to special interest groups, such as lobbyists, worker's unions, associations, government agencies, etc. (This is not necessarily an evil. These groups have an equal right to information such as bill introductions, bill text, and subsequent bill movement as the public does). The competition came in the form of a company named Legi-Tech.

Legi-Tech (I'll avoid a history of the company at this point) desired to provide electronic legislative information to the same special interest groups the NYS Legislature sold their service (LRS) to. Thus, the Legislature faced competition in the market. How did the Legislature respond? In short, they used every resource at their disposal to eliminate the competition. In detail, they passed a law (Section 21, of Chapter 257 of the laws of 1984) that prohibited the sale of Legislative information by the Legislature to companies other than those that the Legislature runs. What other business can insure its survival with such efficiency and legalized monopolizing of the market of Public information? Legi-Tech sued the Legislature on the Constitutional grounds of breach of the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court decided with the NYS Legislature. An appeal was remanded, and eventually dropped. Perhaps Legi-Tech's approach was wrong. I will not address this issue at this juncture.

Chapter 257 of 1984 is on it's own an interesting document. The supporting memorandums from the Director of the Budget, the Attorney General and the Council to the State Education Department found in the bill jacket all fail to mention that the late Session bill amended Chapter 51 of 1984, the Legislature and Judiciary Budget. In fact, there is no notice (other than the actual section in the bill) that the legislation amends anything other than the Education Budget for the year. McKinney's published Session laws for that year strike section 21 and groups it under "appropriations." Well, there is no monetary value attached to the section, only a transfer of funds from the Computer Services and Development Fund to the Computer Services Fund.

The public tax dollar pays for the Computer Services fund, to the suggestion of $1.5 million in this year's proposed budget, but is unable to reap the real-time, or searching benefits of the monies. The appropriation is in addition to the revenue generated by the sale of subscriptions to the aforementioned special interests. Pretty good business if you can get it, but you can't... The Legislature makes sure of that, in deference to Chapter 257 of 1984. Well, I suppose the public can access the information if their willing to shell out a couple grand for a subscription. So that's tax dollars with a subscription piled on top. In my opinion, the Legislature is double dipping the willing market's pocket, while duping the public who contributes to the fund.

To summarize (I'm currently obligated to be elsewhere), in 1984 the NYS Legislature solidified its handle on the distribution of Legislative Information. They consciously hold information the public pays for from the public and sells it to special interests first. The NYS Legislature is shirking its responsibility to the public in favor of catering (while making a large buck) to the special interests. They are lording over the information they so arrogantly assume they have the right to hold from the public. The lords have spoken in a silent, back-door bill that takes money from the public, and gives them darkness in return.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The NYPIRG Purchase

As a very short description of an event that deserves contextualization, I offer this:

The Attorney General's Office hired NYPIRG's former director, Blair Horner as an organizer and implementor of Project Sunlight. Mr. Horner, previous to the acceptance of his new post, advocated for greater public scrutiny and openess in our state government.

As we have seen through testing of the site, many of the functions are incomplete, and the legislative information is abominable. Legislative information is provided by the Assembly website. The Assembly website gets information from the Legislative Bill Drafting Commission (LBDC). The LBDC's information is at least a day behind the actual movement or introduction of bills, yet the information is made available in electronic format... You simply need to pay the Legislature a couple grand in order to find out what your elected official introduced today.

The crucial component of the legislative data-base missing from the original proposal for Project Sunlight is The Legislative Retrieval System.

That said, I'm curious to know what Mr. Horner thinks of Project Sunlight - not an opinion written in a statement, but the info given across a few beers. I'm buying, Blair, but I can't offer State pension, or Law Department salary.