If Texting-While-Driving Ban Fails, Blame Albany’s “Democracy of One”

silver.jpgSheldon Silver. Photo: Daily News.

Last week Streetsblog followed up on the stalled progress of a statewide texting-while-driving ban, a bill that appears to be going nowhere even though almost everyone on the Assembly transportation committee supports it, according to Brooklyn representative Felix Ortiz.

When we contacted Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office, a spokesperson told us that it’s up to the committee chair to move the bill forward. That would be Rochester Democrat David Gantt. But why should one person have such power when the overwhelming majority of his members disagree? And is Gantt really the guy making that call — or is it Sheldon Silver?

To get a sense of the dynamics at work here, Streetsblog called Laura Seago, a researcher at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice and co-author of the aptly titled report on Albany dysfunction, "Still Broken" [PDF].

"I would be surprised if Sheldon Silver wasn’t involved," Seago said of the texting ban. "This is
something we see all the time, unfortunately, which is that the speaker
controls everything that comes to the floor."

While Gantt makes a convenient target, and it’s conceivable, in Seago’s words, that he was "acting freelance" on this one, the fact remains that Silver could easily move the texting ban forward if he chose to do so.

In a legislature that functions democratically, the members of the transportation committee could also override the objections of their chair or the leader of their chamber. But that’s not how things work in Albany.

"Most state legislatures make committees the place where legislation is
robustly debated and made," said Seago. Next door in Connecticut, she notes, bills introduced in committee are required to have a hearing and a vote,
but in New York, "we just don’t have that." Here, the leaders of each legislative chamber — Sheldon Silver in the Assembly, Malcolm Smith in the State Senate — maintain control over the committee process, and there’s no viable way for the rank-and-file to force a vote on a bill.

The Assembly, says Seago, is a "democracy of one."

If you’re wondering why Sheldon Silver would choose to block a popular measure to reduce the public safety risk posed by distracted drivers, it may be instructive to look at the long battle to ban driving while talking on a cell phone. That fight lasted several years, and when the state legislature finally passed a bill, in 2001, it did not include any restrictions on hands-free cell phones — to the delight of the telecom industry and its lobbyists in Albany, and despite studies showing that hands-free phone calls pose just as big a risk as those on handsets.