NY Times: Extra! Extra! Albany Lawmakers Face Five-Day Week in Capitol

By Jesse McKinley, 3/27/17

ALBANY — It’s an occurrence as uncommon in these parts as a bearhug from the governor or an indictment-free year.

On Monday, New York State legislators embarked a rare and rigorous five-day workweek here, the first time in nearly six years that they have been scheduled to be in the Capitol from Monday through Friday.

The prospect of spending five consecutive days at your place of employment might not be a shock for someone with, say, a job. But the lawmakers say their seemingly light legislative schedule does not take into account ample time spent on the clock in other ways: budget hearings, which can drag on; community and district events, which often occur far from Albany; fielding constituent concerns, via phone, email and the occasional screed; and researching the myriad issues they are responsible for tackling.

All of which, it can be argued, makes criticizing their lack of time in the Capitol unfair.

“It’s kind of like saying your workweek is the time you spend typing on a keyboard, or that a radio reporter’s workday is the three minutes their voice is on the air, or that a schoolteacher doesn’t spend time grading papers,” said Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Democrat from Manhattan, who is his chamber’s longest-serving member. “I can’t imagine any legislator that only works a five-day week.”

The operative word there may be “imagine,” in large part because so much of Albany’s governance — and, yes, work — happens behind closed doors, including the homestretch of budget negotiating that began this week. (It was off to a slow start on Monday: Neither chamber convened until after lunch, and both were done by 4 p.m.) Still, legislators will spend hours debating bills among themselves, and their leaders will spend many additional hours debating with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo about his often divergent vision of those bills.

That opaque deal-making has been criticized by good-government groups that hoped for more from Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat.

“Candidate Cuomo pledged to make Albany the most transparent government in history,” said Blair Horner, the executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Governor Cuomo has kept the curtains drawn and the blinds tightly closed when it comes to budget negotiations.”

The rarity of a five-day week also touches on the lawmakers’ ever-present albatross, ethics reform, as well as other simmering issues, namely their salary and part-time status.

Last fall, Mr. Cuomo effectively short-circuited the possibility of a salary increase when his appointees to the State Commission on Legislative, Judicial and Executive Compensation declined to approve a raise, upsetting legislators. Adding to their angst, the governor suggested that lawmakers limit their outside income and assume full-time status while chiding them for asking for more pay.

“A part-time job for $80,000, that’s a lot of money,” Mr. Cuomo said. (Lawmakers make a base salary of $79,500, plus per diems.)

Soon after his initial demands, the governor linked even more policy ideas to the higher pay, resulting in a showdown — one he lost — when the Republican-led Senate declined to make a deal.

In January, the governor persisted, announcing a proposal for a constitutional amendment creating a full-time Legislature, as well as a raft of other ethics proposals. Since then, however, he has spent little time discussing them, blaming lack of legislative appetite.

Not that ethics isn’t still a problem in Albany: Last week, a Republican state senator, Robert G. Ortt, and his predecessor, George Maziarz, were arraigned on corruption charges; they pleaded not guilty. Mr. Ortt strenuously denied the allegations at his arraignment, which came just before a session in the Senate, one that lasted just 31 minutes.

Such short stays in the chamber, and the Capitol, are not rare: During the slow periods in the legislative session — January and February — the senators have been known to meet briefly, sometimes for just a few minutes, for part of the week, and then head home to their districts. The Democrat-dominated Assembly’s sessions are generally a little longer, perhaps because its discussions of issues like abortion and immigration are sometimes hotly contested.

In April, legislators barely come to Albany. The 2017 calendar currently has just six scheduled days in session. May is a little more intense — a dozen days — but the workload diminishes slightly in June, the session’s final month, with 11 days, though additional days could be tacked on if bills are pending.

Then the lawmakers do not return to Albany for six months.

This year’s five-day week, one of just a few scheduled in the past two decades, is the result of an anomaly in the calendar that leaves the state’s budget deadline, midnight on March 31, falling on Friday, effectively eliminating the possibility of lawmakers scooting out of the Capitol before then. But spending limited time in Albany is actually beneficial and by design, supporters of the schedule say, in part by preventing legislators from becoming professional politicians.

“New Yorkers benefit from having people from all walks of life,” said Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans, noting that farmers, doctors and businesspeople have served in the Legislature. “Otherwise they become professional legislators, more dependent on having that job.”

Senate Republicans have fought against limits on outside jobs and income. “Just because the legislators aren’t in Albany in session,” Mr. Reif added, “doesn’t meant they aren’t working extraordinarily hard for the people they represent.”

He pointed out that during the budget period and at the end of session, lawmakers often have unscheduled days added to the calendar and often put in 18-hour days.

Michael Whyland, a spokesman for the Assembly, was blunt regarding critics of the process.

“Some people live to complain, apparently,” Mr. Whyland said in a statement. He added that for “most legislators these are seven-day-a-week jobs” and that “they’re never ‘off the clock.’”

Indeed, one might also note that the legislators, and Mr. Cuomo, have been efficient with the time they do have scheduled in Albany: While late budgets used to be the norm, officials are hoping to have a budget approved on time (or very close to it) for a seventh straight year.

Veteran lawmakers like Mr. Gottfried — who estimates that he works 60 hours a week during the legislative session — say it is impossible to gauge how much goes into governing by simply looking at calendars or public schedules.

“If you look at the governor’s daily schedule they send out, it often says the governor is in New York with no public events, but that doesn’t mean that he’s taking a nap and going to the track,” Mr. Gottfried said. “I’d be surprised if he has many days of less than 10 or 12 hours, and I think that’s true of an awful lot of legislators, too.”

That will certainly be true this week; legislators commonly stay in session late into the wee hours in the final week of budget talks. That intensity is followed by a substantial break in April, however, which some observers say is probably best.

“My feeling is that the fewer days spent in Albany by legislators,” said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, “the better off New York residents would be.”