Senate Democrats Lock Down as Secret Committee Comes to Light

A secret group of Senate Democrats helped decide the fate of nearly 650 bills over the last month. Just don’t ask any questions.

Chris Bragg and Sam Mellins   ·   June 6, 2024
New York State Capitol in front of question marks
The Senate Working Rules group has no official existence, but it helps decide the fate of hundreds of bills each year. | Image: Matt Wade | Illustration: Akash Mehta

Early Tuesday morning, a select circle of state senators began filing into the office of Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, on the fourth floor of the state capitol building in Albany. They were there for a meeting of the Senate’s Working Rules group, a body so secretive that even some of their fellow senators didn’t know it existed until New York Focus reported on it last week.

The all-Democrat group holds a series of meetings towards the end of each year’s legislative session to discuss hundreds of pending bills and make recommendations to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins about which should pass.

This year, the Working Rules group considered legislation to launch a formal review of the state’s response to Covid-19, speed up the permitting process for new housing, create a public bank in Rochester, and require the state to reduce car dependency. Those measures, which have not yet advanced to the Senate floor, are just a few of the nearly 650 bills that appeared on the group’s agendas over the last month.

As usual, there was no public notice for Tuesday’s meeting. But a source had tipped New York Focus off to its time and location.

When a Senate staffer noticed a reporter standing in the hallway outside Gianaris’s office, they locked the door, leaving several late-arriving senators temporarily unable to enter.

A New York Focus reporter entered the office two hours later and asked if the Working Rules meeting was still going. Gianaris emerged from a side room and said, “What Working Rules?”

Last week, New York Focus reported on a list compiled by a Senate source of the more than 600 bills that Working Rules considered last year, as well as the identities of a dozen members that were part of last year’s group.

New York Focus has since obtained the agendas for this year’s Working Rules meetings. And while the full membership of this year’s group is not clear, senators that entered or exited the meeting Tuesday morning included Jamaal Bailey, Neil Breslin, Liz Krueger, Shelley Mayer, Sean Ryan, Jose Serrano, James Skoufis, Toby Stavisky, and Gianaris.

Proponents of Working Rules say it’s a necessary mechanism for filtering the masses of outstanding legislation in the final weeks of the session. Critics acknowledge that the legislature needs to narrow the list of bills it considers, but argue that doing so in secret makes it impossible to hold public officials accountable for their actions — or to try to influence them.

“It would be less efficient if they were constantly bombarded by everyone, including other members.”

—Senator Julia Salazar

Advocates and other senators are often left in the dark as Working Rules decides the fate of their proposals.

Senator Jabari Brisport, for example, didn’t know that a bill he sponsors — which would ban New York from funding institutions that use electro-shock treatment and similar methods on humans — was on a Working Rules agenda last week. He learned about the development from a New York Focus reporter on Tuesday.

“I was under the impression it was dead for the year,” Brisport said. If he had known it was still under consideration, he “would have organized more around it.”

“I would have reached out to people on Working Rules in advance of the meeting,” he said.

That might have been difficult to do, though: Brisport said he wasn’t sure who was part of the group, other than Gianaris.

Senator Luis Sepúlveda was aware that a bill he sponsors to allow emergency medical responders to provide first aid to dogs and cats was being considered by Working Rules. But he chose not to lobby members of the group, even though it’s one of his top priorities.

“I had to push to get it on the Working Rules agenda. So Working Rules will decide now,” he said. “I have to give them a certain level of respect. They already know how I feel.”

Several advocates said they weren’t aware that Working Rules was considering bills they’ve been pushing for — or even that it existed.

Elisabeth Benjamin, vice president of health initiatives at the Community Service Society, has been advocating for a bill to stop the five hospitals owned by New York State from suing patients for unpaid medical debt, since many of them are low-income and eligible for financial aid to pay for their treatment. That bill was on the Working Rules agenda for May 27.

“If I had known that this group existed, I would have been reaching out to them,” she said.

Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Liz Krueger, and Michael Gianaris in the state Senate
The three highest ranking Senate Democrats — Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Liz Krueger, and Michael Gianaris — huddle before a vote. | Associated Press

Since New York Focus reported on the group last week, several senators have defended its necessity. One was Working Rules group member Liz Krueger, who has declined multiple requests to speak with New York Focus about the group but told Politico that its method and diversity is “a sign of the terrific leadership of Andrea Stewart-Cousins.”

Before Democrats captured the Senate majority in 2019, Krueger was a sharp critic of the secrecy in Senate processes. In a 2002 report issued shortly after she took office, Krueger wrote that shutting down regular Senate committees a few weeks before the end of the legislative session — traditionally the point when Working Rules takes over — “completely undermines any possibility of committee debate,” and called on the Senate to end that practice.

“When I got to Albany, I was appalled by the antidemocratic, secretive practices I found and knew the Senate needed change,” Krueger wrote in 2009, in a press release touting her role in boosting transparency in the legislative process.

She did not respond to questions this week from New York Focus on why the Working Rules group’s membership, deliberations, and conclusions must remain secret from both the general public and other senators.

Asked the same question, Senator Julia Salazar said she believes in transparency in the legislative process, but also understands the rationale for the current method.

The purpose of Working Rules is to make the frenzied end-of-session period more efficient, she said, and “it would be less efficient if they were constantly bombarded by everyone, including other members.”

“What Working Rules?”

—Senator Michael Gianaris

Still, Salazar said, “it’s important for senators to know about internal processes that affect our bills. It’s my impression that that actually is aligned with the intent of the majority leader, that she’s not deliberately concealing the process from senators.”

New York Focus’s reporting on Working Rules has struck a nerve with Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins’ spokesperson Michael Murphy, who has provided incorrect information on the group to New York Focus and Politico and directed numerous expletive-filled insults at New York Focus.

When New York Focus first approached Murphy for comment about Working Rules in May, he said on multiple occasions that all bills that the group considers are subsequently discussed by the full Senate Democratic conference. In fact, bills that do not pass Working Rules often die there, without further discussion. After New York Focus repeatedly sought to clarify the error, Murphy provided a comment with differing information — now stating only that bills approved by Working Rules get full-conference review — and maintained that’s what he’d “always said.”

He then went on a tirade during a phone call, calling a New York Focus reporter a “clown” and “fucking hack.”

“I gave you the statement and then you’re questioning the statement being like, ‘I don’t know about this.’ Go fuck yourself. Don’t use the statement,” said Murphy, who earns a $188,000 taxpayer-funded annual salary.

The chamber of the New York Senate
The New York State Senate Chamber. | New York State Office of General Services

Last week, Murphy told Politico that Working Rules only meets for “about a week” each year at the end of the legislative session. But agendas obtained by New York Focus show that Working Rules began meeting both this year and last in mid-May, more than three weeks before the end of the legislative session. This year, those meetings continued through at least June 4.

Murphy did not respond to a question about the inaccuracy. He has declined to answer numerous other questions from New York Focus about Working Rules, including who is part of the group this year.

In one key respect, Working Rules was more transparent under the Senate’s Republican majority, which lasted until 2019.

“It wasn’t a secret. We knew who the members were,” said Senator Patrick Gallivan, a Republican who was first elected in 2010. “Even in my very first year I was aware of Working Rules, and I knew to go to members of the committee to try to advance my bills.”

According to Republican Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, who took office in 2015, each Republican Senator was assigned to a member of the Working Rules group, and knew to go to that member to advocate for their priorities.

“It was your job, if you were on Working Rules, to communicate with those members and say ‘What bills do you need?’” Ortt said. The Working Rules members would then try to advance those bills in meetings of the committee.

Murphy, the Stewarts-Cousin spokesperson, wasn’t interested in that history.

“I do not know how the Republicans ran their conference but I do know that we have passed more laws through this house than the Republicans ever passed,” he said.

Akash Mehta contributed reporting.

Chris Bragg is the Albany bureau chief at New York Focus. He has done investigative reporting on New York government and politics since 2009, most recently at The Buffalo News and Albany Times Union.
Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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