Memberitis Continues To Infect Albany Legislators
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Memeberitis (n): the condition of excess and frequent abuse by members of an elected body when distributing tax funds in their district.
We have no budget.
We have at least a $9 billion deficit.
The financial future of our state is rocky, difficult and uncertain.
But if you have to bet on one thing that will come out of the late budget process of the nation’s most dysfunctional legislature, bet on member items.
Member items have been central in criminal cases, ethical improprieties and scandal after scandal in Albany. But member items have been the stuff Albany legislators point to when returning to work their districts at election time.
It doesn’t seem to matter to the State legislators that classroom teachers, health care, MTA subsidies, essential services and more will all be part of the budget sacrifice, as long as they each get a huge kitty of money to sprinkle around their district.
Some will search for the best and most deserving programs. Some will give away their small fortune to groups their friends, families and supporters are involved in. Some will have a statistically amazing relationship to the money contributed to their campaigns. But all in all, arts, cultural, educational, athletic and social service programs are rewarded by legislators, often by showing up in public with a large mock check as if they were using their money, not ours, to bestow this gift.
Yes, they gift from our tax money to the groups they choose with little or no oversight and often with little or no relationship to community needs. Sometimes their gifts border on the criminal – but remembering the likes of Queens’ Brian McLaughlin and his little league money scam is a story for another time.
Now, with more than a $9 billion budget shortfall, you might think our electeds in Albany could forego this annual ritual. You would think they would be more worried about the schools, the medical care and the essential services in their districts. But when a teacher is restored to the classroom the legislator doesn’t get to deliver a check. But instead they can stop by the local fife and drum corps, little league and a dozen other places hand out those oversized monster checks and take a bow while a staff member collects names and business cards of prospective campaign donors and volunteers.
Even some members of each house have recognized the bloated member item budget and abuse has gone too far. Bills have been introduced into each house to reform the shame of member items. One would eliminate member items entirely for this fiscal year. Another would require each member to receive equal amounts of money to distribute, eliminating politics and seniority from the ugly equation. One piece of legislation would prevent members from rewarding groups where their relatives or staff members hold positions.
But none of these pieces of legislation will ever see the light of day. Real reform just doesn’t happen in Albany, even when the chips are down and the situation drastic.
You’d think, with a late budget and a $9 billion deficit, the legislature would be willing to abandon – at least for one year – a practice which has caused embarrassment, scandal and jail time to a number of their colleagues.
But the magic of member items in the district seems to be an addiction the State Senators and Assembly members can’t live without. For us, every time one of those jokers show up at a local civic meeting with a blow-up of a check and proclaim that it is a gift from them or a result of their hard work in Albany, we want to write a headline declaring a State Legislator Has Memberitis.
We’ll be watching the budget process in Albany – the late budget process – with our focus on the future financial health of New York State and the corner of our eye on the strange things that may infect our electeds in Albany.
No Rush To Judgment
Rush Limbaugh, the hate-talk radio host said on his radio show before Congress passed the Healthcare Reform legislation that he would leave the country if the Health Care Bill passed.
According to a transcript of his radio show, he said: “I’ll just tell you this, if this passes and it’s five years from now and all that stuff gets implemented — I am leaving the country. I’ll go to Costa Rica.”
Limbaugh was responding to a caller who asked:”If the health care bill passes, where would you go for health care yourself?”
If you want to send a reminder to Mr. Limbaugh suggesting that he start packing, you can reach him at: ElRushbo@eibnet.com.
Now we’re going to send him our own friendly reminder: “Dear Rush, Remember you said if the Healthcare Reform Bill passes, you’ll leave the country? Well, it passed. Now maybe you’re not in a hurry to leave, but we just can’t wait for when there is no Rush.”
Study Charter, Propose Amendments, Go To Referendum
By HENRY STERN
By HENRY STERN
This begins our coverage of the Charter Revision Commission. The CRC could be an important group whose work will benefit the city. Or it could be a washout.
We will approach the Charter with the intention of making the hearings reasonably interesting for you to read about. The subject lacks the corruption endemic to the state Legislature, and the hypocrisy that often accompanies political campaigns. Ultimately, whatever the Commission recommends must be approved by the voters to take effect, although the City Council has had no compunction in overruling the electorate to suit its own political purposes.
Nonetheless, like the spring, the new Commission represents a bright hope. It contains bright, talented and public-spirited New Yorkers, and a highly competent and nonpolitical professional staff. We hope that partisan politics and minor disputes do not defeat a serious effort at reform.
One specific piece of advice: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” In this case, don’t put all your proposals into a single question for the voters to decide.
The newly-appointed Charter Revision Commission held its first public hearing of the year, chaired by Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University.
The Commission itself consists of 15 members. In naming a group of citizens for a task like this, there is generally a conscious effort to secure geographic, gender, racial and religious balance. The men and women at the table come from a variety of backgrounds, and all appear to be people of ability. The necessary diversity is intended to show fairness and to build support for whatever recommendations the Commission may make. In a city of immigrants, it is a matter of common sense.
In his opening statement, Chancellor Goldstein said he wanted to encourage broad public participation in the process of charter revision. He promised that every speaker who appeared at the public hearing would be heard, although speakers other than public officials were limited to three minutes. They were invited to submit written statements if they wished to extend their remarks.
Technology will be used that was not yet universal at the time of the most recent Charter Revision Commission. Meeting notices will be posted on the Commission’s website, www.nyc.gov/charter in five languages: Chinese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and English. Transcripts of the Commission’s hearings may be read, in English, on its website, or linked to on Facebook and Twitter.
It is premature to comment on the Commission’s entire agenda, but one issue that generated enormous attention last year was term limits. A referendum in 1993 established an eight-year limit for elected city officials, and that section survived a 1996 referendum in which an extension to 12 years was proposed. It was generally assumed that the referenda established the law, but in the fall of 2008, Mayor Bloomberg proposed and the City Council adopted, 29-22, a charter amendment extending term limits.
The Charter provides that most sections dealing with election of city officials cannot be amended by local law, but require a referendum. The term-limit section, added by referendum, did not carry that particular provision (or poison pill). As a result, the courts upheld the Council law, and the council members voted themselves eligibility for a third term, to which most were elected although five were defeated, an unusually high number.
Whatever term limit is agreed upon by the Commission and the voters, it is a matter of simple fairness that such limit should only be changed by a referendum, not by local law adopted by the people directly affected by the change.
For example, the Council is specifically prohibited from lengthening the terms of its members. The extension of eligibility, clearly contrary to the wishes of the voters as expressed in referendum, escaped the barrier that was part of similar limitations in the Charter. This was an oversight by Ronald Lauder’s lawyers. It shows how a relatively small mistake can change the course of history.
We have in mind a proverb that expresses the idea.
The saying, of which variants trace back to the 14th century, has been recounted as:
“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the battle was lost. For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
I predict that considerable blogging will be involved with the ideas which will be presented to and discussed by the Commission. This will be the first Commission to operate in the world of cyberspace, and New Yorkers will want to express their feelings in a medium where others can read what they have to say.
The City Charter is an important document. We intend to follow the Commission. At the very least, it will take us temporarily out of the sewers of Albany.
Cum spiro, spero.