Associated Press, November 29, 2004
Legislators Announce Impending Suit Against Governor, Leaders
Joel Stashenko

Two minority-party lawmakers gave legislative leaders and Gov. George Pataki until Jan. 18 to spread power and resources more evenly throughout the Legislature, or they said they would sue.

One of the legislators, Republican Assemblyman Thomas Kirwan of Orange County, said Monday he doubted that talk among the majority-party legislators in the Assembly and Senate would generate the kind of changes that would empower rank-and-file lawmakers, especially those with minority-party status.

"Nobody wants to do a lawsuit, but I don't think there's any other way," he said.

Kirwan, an upstate conservative, and liberal state Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, said they were announcing their intention to sue now to give the Legislature more incentive to make procedural reforms.

One of the changes the legislators are demanding is a more equal distribution of money to run legislative offices. Majority-party legislators get, on average, two or three times more to run their Albany and district offices than minority-party lawmakers do, and the majority-party legislators have at their disposal large central staffs in Albany.

Kirwan said all Assembly districts contain roughly 126,000 New Yorkers and those represented by minority-party representatives should not be shortchanged on resources and services because of their representatives' political affiliation.

"They didn't think by electing me that they were going to systematically screw themselves," Kirwan said.

The two lawmakers also said their suit will demand that minority-party legislators get pork-barrel allocations known as "member items" in equal amounts to majority-party lawmakers; seek the removal of parliamentary obstacles that prevent minority-party lawmakers from getting bills out of committees and onto the floors of their chambers for votes; and press for the elimination of "empty seat" voting, where lawmakers don't have to be present in the chambers to be recorded as voting "yes" on bills.

Pataki is named in the suit because the lawmakers contend he is violating the state constitution by not personally signing every "message of necessity" he sends to the Legislature. The message is a parliamentary vehicle to bypass the standard three-day "aging" process that bills must undergo before they can be voted on. A message of necessity, which is stamped with the governor's signature by aides, allows an immediate vote on bills and reformers say it lets the Legislature vote on often complex measures it has had no time to understand.

Democrats will hold a 104-46 advantage over Republicans in the Assembly when the Legislature convenes for its 2005 session in January. Republicans will control the Senate by a 35-27 or 34-28 margin in January, depending on the outcome of a vote count for a Westchester County seat.

Krueger and Kirwan will be represented by the Doug Lasdon, director of the Urban Justice Center, and Evan Davis, one-time counsel to former Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo. Lasdon said his group wants to be involved in the suit because the low-income people it represents have little ability to influence the closed system that Albany has become.

Davis acknowledged that as counsel to Cuomo, he sent messages of necessity to the Legislature that were not signed "under the hand" of the governor, as required by the state constitution.

"I was wrong," Davis said. "I confess error."

He compared the announcement of the impending suit as "fair warning" to legislative leaders that there will be consequences if they fail to follow through on reforms in the Senate and Assembly.

Senate Republican Leader Joseph Bruno has appointed a task for in the Senate to explore reforms, including rules changes, his spokesman Mark Hansen said Monday.

Assembly Democrats have a three-day meeting planned starting Tuesday in Manhattan with potential reforms at the top of their agenda, said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's spokesman Charles Carrier. Pataki will review the changes advocated in the legislators' impending suit, his spokesman Kevin Quinn said Monday.