Albany Packs It In: Few Achievements, Much Squabbling
Day One - Everything Changes.
Day 179 - Sadly, not that much has changed.
The State Legislature adjourned last week, without agreement on many major issues. They say they will return to Albany, but unless there is an attitude adjustment, progress is unlikely.
The first promise broken in Albany in January was the promised transparency, which was transparently unrealistic. It vanished when Gov. Eliot Spitzer, majority leader Joe Bruno and Speaker Sheldon Silver agreed on a small package of bills which had been held hostage last year in a divided legislature. The bills, reforming workers’ compensation, and extending civil commitment for mentally ill sex offenders, were good will offerings by the legislative leaders to the new governor. Of course, the bills were in the public interest and should have been adopted years ago, but in Albany nothing is done except as a favor, and by common courtesy favors must be returned.
The governor responded to the leaders’ initial largesse by trying to manage the selection of a new Comptroller to replace the running mate he helped drive from office (who may have deserved his fate for other reasons). The State Constitution provides that, in the event of a Comptroller vacancy, it is to be filled by both houses of the Legislature, meeting jointly. The Assembly chose one of their own, Thomas DiNapoli, whom the governor called “thoroughly and totally unqualified.” Advantage: Silver and Bruno.
There is a reason why the Brennan Institute of Justice at NYU concluded in 2004 that New York State has the most dysfunctional legislature in the United States. Whether that is literally true or not — there might be some other state that is worse — it is beyond dispute that our legislature is close to the bottom. That is pathetic, because with our resources of money and talent, we should be among the best.
It is not that New York has the most corrupt people, although some of them have gone to jail and some others should, or our legislators are least competent, or the laziest, or the stupidest elected officials in the country. The problem is that the combined effects of these factors—1) the top-heavy structure of tight leadership control; 2) the cocoon of life terms for the legislators, ending only in death, promotion or imprisonment; 3) the bipartisan gerrymandering of Senate and Assembly districts; 4) the custom of end-of-session passage of bills the members have not had the opportunity even to read; 5) the travesty of one-house bills; 6) the effective exclusion of most legislators from meaningful participation in the adoption or amendment of bills; and 7) the expenditures of hundreds of millions of dollars in political pork, disproportionately awarded to pliant and complicit members — lead to a situation where legislative business is frequently unrelated to the public interest, and sometimes adverse to it.
That was a long sentence, but there are still more reasons why the Governor and Legislature have so far this year been relatively unproductive. A major problem is the ego of the participants, their ambitions and their motives.
Gov. Spitzer wants to be a national figure. To do that he must earn a reputation outside New York State. Since he is not a billionaire or an Olympian or a film or television star, he must rely on governmental achievements to win the recognition he seeks. As luck would have it, many accomplishments will depend on legislative co-operation — by both houses. In general, it is in one’s interest to work with other people, unless one has the intention and the power to destroy them. If one fails in that effort, one may face extreme prejudice.
The governor was elected in 2006 by a margin of 1,614,356 votes over a qualified Republican candidate, John Faso. That was a decisive victory. The result was due to public approval of Attorney General Spitzer, but it was also about President Bush, whose unpopularity hurt all Republican candidates. There was also a demand for change after 12 years of rule by Republican Gov. George Pataki and his cronies.
Part of the Legislature’s problem is the issue of linkage. This practice is often referred to as logrolling. The idea is that I will vote for your bill if you vote for mine. The process has some rationale in terms of building majorities to pass legislation, but it is usually a method to garner support for public expenditures which are likely to be wasteful. Even worse, however, is when it is used to block constructive legislation, holding bills hostage unless others agree to support a bill with which they do not agree.
That has been the case with campaign finance reforms which Gov. Spitzer is said to have demanded. The Republicans correctly see these “reforms” as having a greater impact on their sources of financial support. Senator Bruno issued a strong, one might say vitriolic, statement on the issue. Mr. Spitzer was first elected Attorney General in 1998 (he ran and lost in 1994 with millions of dollars borrowed from his father). The sources of Mr. Bruno’s income are now under investigation. Mr. Silver’s mother lode is his private law firm.
New York State is not a place where significant campaigns have died for lack of financial support. There is so much political money here that it is exported for Senatorial and Congressional races in other states, not to mention the 527 committees that are used to frustrate the McCain-Feingold law governing Federal campaigns.
It is alleged with apparent credibility that the Republicans reneged on badly-needed Wicks Law reform because their pork items were deleted from the budget. It is an old saying that one man’s pork is another man’s bacon, and politicians are elected, in part, on their ability to bring home the bacon to their districts. The rationale for their obstruction is: Why should I support a measure you want, even if it desirable, if at the same time your other hand is preventing me from doing what I have always done. Each house can block any proposal by the other; mutual consent and identical language being required to send a bill to the governor for his signature.
Complicating the situation is the fact that the governor has made it his priority to depose Senator Bruno and secure Democratic control of the Senate. He began by luring Senator Mike Balboni into his administration as Deputy Secretary for Homeland Security. Balboni, a capable Republican lawmaker from Long Island, has not been heard from since his appointment. His vacant seat was filled in a special election by a Democrat, Craig Johnson, for whom Gov. Spitzer campaigned and raised money. The State of New York may or may not be more secure, but Senator Bruno is certainly less secure, thanks to this perfectly legitimate machination.
New York is a blue state, and the Senate has been Republican for the last 40 years primarily because of gerrymandering. For example, a few years ago there were eight Republican Senate seats within New York City, while there was only one Republican seat (out of 65 or so) in the Assembly. That was because each house draws its own district lines. The Democrats tried to eliminate as many Republican seats as they can, and vice versa.
Nonpartisan redistricting is, in our judgment, the single most important reform that should be enacted. It will not, however, be easy to achieve, in part because the Department of Justice, which has authority over large parts of New York City, supports racial gerrymandering to maximize the number of seats held by ethnic minorities, who are actually majorities in many communities. Another obstacle is the difficulty of finding truly impartial people, even retired judges may have axes to grind, or minds that could be sharpened. We have suggested that community board districts, which were drawn geographically in the 1950s and ’60s, can be the building blocks out of which political districts are formed in New York City. So far the powers that be have expressed no interest in the plan, but that is understandable.