July 31, 2010
I cringe when I hear proposals for legislative term limits or that the voters are angry and are going to throw the incumbents out in the next election. Let me explain why.
For thirty years I was a bill drafter in the New York State Legislature. I worked in a bi-partisan commission and drafted legislation for Assemblymen and Senators, republicans and democrats. I was assigned to 18 legislators and whenever they wanted to have a legislative drafted that could be introduced for consideration in their respective houses, they would come to me. I was a behind the scenes craftsman for legislation requested by such diverse legislators as Republican Senator Dale Volker from Erie County and Democratic Assemblyman Oliver Koppell from the Bronx.
It is true that the state legislature and state government leaves a lot to be desired, but I saw there are long time serving legislators with very high principles who work very hard to advance those principles through legislation. I had the privilege to work with some of these legislators , conservatives and liberals alike, and I learned their skills and ability to succeed need years to ripen.
It takes time for change through legislation to happen. There are many hurdles after legislation is introduced and before it is enacted.
Former Assemblyman and now State Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis sponsored legislation requiring cigarettes sold in New York must be self-extinguishing. He had evidence that this was technically feasible and that lives and property would be saved by this requirement. It took 18 years before this legislation was enacted. Today at least 37 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws requiring cigarettes sold must be self-extinguishing. The Grannis 30 year record in the state legislature included laws decreasing pharmaceutical drug costs through use of generic drugs, the Clean Indoor Air act that was one of the first restrictions on smoking in public areas and provision for felony punishment for animal cruelty.
These and many other breakthrough laws sponsored by Pete Grannis faced intense opposition by powerful lobbyists like those from the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries. Persistence and time for an experienced legislator made change possible.
Another legislator I drafted for before leaving the Bill Drafting Commission in 2000, in fact the longest serving Assemblyman in State history, is Assemblyman Richard Gottfried from New York City. Gottfried who has chaired the Assembly Health Committee for many years passed 20 bills this year which he proudly declares as evidence he is not slowing down.
Laws he has initiated and sponsored are extensive and include provision for Prenatal Care Assistance Program for low income women; the Child Health Plus Program, which allows low- and moderate-income parents to get free or low-cost health insurance for their children; a Physician Profiling Law, which gives patients access to information about a doctor’s record; establishment of Family Health Plus, which provides free health coverage for low-income adults; the Health Care Proxy Law, which allows people to designate an agent to make health care decisions for them if they lose decision-making capacity and the Juvenile Justice reform act of 1976. On Gottfried’s still to accomplish list are legislation for legalizing medical marijuana and establishing single payer health insurance.
Another example of the value of long serving legislators I drafted for is the father-son legislators from Buffalo, William and Sam Hoyt.
I was assigned to draft bills for Assemblyman “Bill” Hoyt in 1975 when he was first elected. He impressed me not only for his commitment to addressing issues like child care protection and environmental quality but his love and advocacy for his home city of Buffalo. After his untimely death, he was succeeded by his son Sam who did not miss a beat in both actively sponsoring progressive legislation and advocacy for Buffalo.
One of the last significant pieces of legislation I worked on before I left the legislature was smart growth legislation for Sam. In the 1990s he was the first state legislator to introduce smart growth legislation and he was able to team with his Republican colleague State Senator Mary Lou Rath to have at least a version of smart growth adopted and advanced as the “Quality Communities” program of former Governor George Pataki. It was not as far sighted as Sam’s vision and legislation and he tenaciously continued to advocate for smart growth that would help revive traditional cities and, in fact, save first generation suburbs.
Sam was one of the first legislators to concentrate on connection between state infrastructure development and costly patterns of growth that have lead to the decline of upstate cities and suburbs that fail to meet the needs of an aging population. This year Sam’s smart growth infrastructure planning legislation passed both houses and is expected to be approved by the Governor.
The record and accomplishments of Grannis, Gottfried, the Hoyts and other long serving state legislators will never be duplicated by legislators subject to two or three terms by formal term limits or those too quickly cast off by frustrated voters who don’t see the value of their experienced representatives.
Some people sneer at the tendency of voters to reelect their own representatives while they rail against the governmental institutions in which they serve. In fact we are fortunate that the voters reelected Grannis, Gottfried and the Hoyts as well as many others who have records they are proud of and we should all appreciate. And, of course, I was fortunate to have professional and intelligent state legislators with high values to work for.
On the other hand, term limited legislators would be looking for their next job almost as soon as they were sworn in and they would be dependent on lobbyists or their leadership for the knowledge they did not have time to acquire.