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Amper: Wanted, a government that answers to us

The State Capitol building on March 10, 2008

The State Capitol building on March 10, 2008 in Albany, New York. Photo Credit: Getty Images

The scandal in Albany is not about what's illegal; it's about what's legal. Consider these two outrageous actions in the legislative session that wrapped up recently:

A bill was introduced that would reduce contamination of Long Island's water, which studies show is becoming gravely polluted. Public comments to legislators on the bill ran overwhelmingly in favor, and the Assembly passed it by a 112-24 vote. The Senate killed the bill when its leaders allowed neither debate nor vote.

A bill introduced that would require the identification of hazardous materials in products used by children had 40 sponsors in the Senate (a 63 percent majority). But it, too, was killed without a hearing.

Pundits call this business as usual. But we should call it what it is: a cozy little game that allows politicians to serve special interests while dodging the consequences at the polls. It's a nasty game that not only endangers children and threatens our water, but also strikes at the heart of the democratic process.

The way it's supposed to be, all sides of an issue are aired in public debate. Legislators vote and the side with the most votes wins. Folks who don't like the outcome have recourse via the voting booth.

The process would not suit those special-interest groups with private stakes in an issue that runs against the public good. In a debate and vote, these groups can lose. In the child-safety issue, this would be the manufacturers. In the case of the water bill, it's the development and farming lobbies, which together forked over tens of thousands of dollars for the coffers of Long Island's seven state senators just in the past two elections.

Killing bills instead of voting on them suits these senators, too. It enables politicians to take special-interest groups' cash, and do their bidding while simultaneously claiming to be on the public's side.

When I complained to one Long Island senator about his inaction on the water legislation, his defense was, "I would have voted for it" -- that is, if he only had the chance. Presumably, the 40 sponsors of the spiked child-safety bill would have voted for it, too.

And that's exactly the point. A vote would have compelled lawmakers to do right by the public. By killing the bill, Senate Majority Co-Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) saved them that fate.

It doesn't have to be this way. One remedy is to reform the legislature's "motion to discharge," which allows Assembly and Senate members to demand that a bill be brought to a vote. New York's procedure involving limited sponsorship and onerous timelines is known as one of the most restrictive in the country.

Even if we had a functioning procedure, we would need legislators with the integrity to use it. The spectacle of a clear majority declining to stand up for a child-safety measure they themselves sponsored shows how far they have drifted from a proper understanding of their obligations. Like children testing their boundaries, lawmakers need us to set clear expectations.

An elected official's job is not just to say the right thing, but do it. It's a simple message, and we can communicate it in a way they will understand.

If the 40 senators who failed to get a vote on the child-safety bill were turned out of office this fall, you can be confident the new batch would learn from that mistake. And if our seven Long Island senators are turned out, you can bet your water supply that the next group will get the job done.

Sneaky government prevails only if citizens permit it. For too long we've been complaining about our politicians, yet enabling them. Let's stop doing that, and start getting a government that answers to us.

Richard Amper is president of the nonprofit Long Island Environmental Voters Forum.