Monday, November 06, 2006

Three Men In A Room

A Chance to Make a Difference or More of the Same

The New York Times ran an editorial this weekend entitled, When In Doubt on Tuesday.

In essence, the paper's editorial board suggested that, if you are unsure for whom to cast your vote with respect to members of the New York State Legislature, you should elect Democrats to the State Senate and Republicans to the Assembly, in essence reversing the flow of backwater in these respective chambers, the Senate long-controlled by the GOP, and the Assembly forever dominated by the Dems.

Frankly, we can't say we agree with the prevailing view at The Times, nor do we endorse the wholesale casting of ballots for one party or another either to maintain the status quo or just to change the oil on a car whose crankshaft perpetually leaks and is held together only by rust.

Though voters may have "doubts" in pulling the lever in certain races (yes, we're still "pulling the levers" here in New York, evidence again that our State Legislature is, as a whole, asleep behind the wheel and driven by forces that do not typically or readily benefit either taxpayer or voter), to vote party over person, patron over pragmatism, is for the electorate to cop out in having to do its homework on who would best serve the true interests of their constituencies.

If you don't know what the candidates stand for, and, in the case of incumbents, what they have or have not done for your community, shame on you. You deserve what we've had in Albany, from the general dysfunction to the disgraceful rules by which they conduct business (rules such as those that permit legislators to vote on measures even when they're not in their seats -- or in the building, for that matter), and you'll deserve what we'll get -- more of the same.

More than this, turning the Assembly over to the Republicans and the State Senate over to the Democrats, will do absolutely nothing to change a fundamental flaw in the legislative process -- that everything that happens in Albany is determined not by the will of the legislative bodies as a whole (or even in part), but rather, by those three men in a room (two of whom most New Yorkers never even have the opportunity to vote for -- or against).

It comes as no surprise, certainly not to the astute readers of this blog, that nothing happens in Albany (we should end the thought right there) without the blessing of those three men -- the Governor, the Majority Leader of the Senate, and the Speaker of the Assembly.

Switch around their parties and change the leadership, if you will, and, at the end of the legislative session, you will find that the decisions that impact upon your life are still being made by three men in a room. Only the parties will have changed.

In reality, its not the men -- we believe that Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver both represent their consituents with zeal and diligence (as for Governor George Pataki, well, that's another story altogether), but, face it, unless you live in the Majority Leader's Senate district or the Speaker's Assembly district, these men were not elected to represent you.

The thought of two men -- one elected from a Senate district in Rensselaer County representing some 306,000 residents, the other from an Assembly District covering lower Manhattan representing approximately 126,000 New yorkers -- making decisions for more than 19 million New Yorkers, borders on the absurd. In fact, it crosses that border, effectively assuring that more than 18.5 million citizens of the Empire State have little or no representation in Albany, their own district's legislators having long ago permitted the three men in a room to usurp the powers granted to them not only by the State Constitution, but by our votes.

In essence, when you come right down to it, we really don't have representative government in Albany. At best, it is government by proxy, where legislators on both sides of the aisle regularly cede their authority -- not to mention committee functions and voting clout -- to their all-powerful leaders. 150 Assembly members. 62 State Senators. That's 212 State Legislators in all, if this blogger's 4th grade math scores are accurate. And everything that happens -- from education to taxes -- is decided by three men in a room. [And you thought we needed to bring democracy to other regions of the world. Just bringing it to the Capital Region of New York would be refreshing!]

Before we could hoist the "Mission Accomplished" banner over the State Capitol, heralding the day that Albany has been "fixed," more than a changing of the guard -- from Republican to Democrat and Democrat to Republican -- is required. It is fundamental change, from the rules our legislators play by to the number of public authorities allowed to "bond" outside legislative purview -- that must be our legislators' marching orders.

Former State Senator Seymour Lachman, who didn't coin the phrase Three Men In A Room, but wrote a book by the same name, set forth, as a basic premise, certain fundamental changes which must be adopted by our State Legislature if we have a shot at returning representative government to Albany -- and with it, the prospect of tackling New York's tough problems, historically neglected, or, at best, sugar-coated, by our State Legislature.

The reforms include the following:

• Term limits for all Assembly members and senators.

• Eliminate special budget allocations worked out among house leaders and the governor for their special projects.

• Require total transparency of any and all member items, which are intended to serve community needs, not the electoral agenda of the house leaders.

• Set up a nonpartisan redistricting board, as the redistricting process is now used by Senate and Assembly leaders to prevent truly competitive elections and protect their house majorities.

• Establish a permanent, nonpartisan ethics commission to police the Legislature, executive branch and state agencies.

• Limit the state to a maximum of a dozen public authorities at any one time, keeping the authorities such as those responsible for transit and highways and scrapping the rest, incorprotating their functions into the regular state budget. At the same time, establish a nonpartisan commission with ample auditing staff to oversee the public authorities that remain and report on their activities and expenditures to the Legislature and the public.

• Require seniority-based appointments of committee chairs, subject to party vote, thus providing committees some autonomy from the house leaders to devise and debate legisaltion.

• Equalize resources for staffs and services for every legislator, regardless whether he or she is in the dominant or minority party of his or her house. This will prevent the second-class treatment of minority-party members in both houses and the denial of one-person, one-vote principles for their constituents.

• Require every bill voted out of legislative committee to be voted on by the entire house, not selectively weeded out or junked by the house leader.

• Establish a mechanism to resolve legislative difference in compatible bills passed in the Senate and the Assembly.

• Establish a nonpartisan, independent budget office to monitor state budget and state finances, including debt accumulation and taxation.

As for how you should cast your vote on Tuesday, November 7th, our recommendation would be two-fold: Vote for those who you believe would best serve the interests of your community, and, vote for those who are willing to at least give change in Albany a chance, signing on, in principle, if not more, to the Lachman reforms.

However you decide on Tuesday, do vote. Every vote, including yours, does, indeed, make a difference.

And that's the key word here, "difference!" Everything else is just "more of the same," a reality we can no longer afford here in New York, and a legislative system we should no longer tolerate.

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