Thursday, January 18, 2007

Three Men, One Of Them With A Broom

New York's New Governor, Eliot Spitzer, Needs To Make A Clean Sweep Of Albany's Reckless "Borrow & Spend" Ways

"Who gets what and how much" has been in the hands of three powerful New York politicians since the early 90s -- the Governor, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Assembly Speaker.

The balance of elected officialdom in Albany -- namely, the members of the New York State Legislature -- have been a more or less docile bunch, content to follow the leaders into the fiscal abyss of spend, borrow, and spend some more.

We've progressed in New York's State Legislature from the time-honored tradition of literally stopping the clock in the Assembly chamber so that the State budget wouldn't be "late" -- technically -- to abrogating representative government to the whim and will of three men, two of whom have never been elected by a state-wide constituency.

Seymour Lackman, a former New York State Senator, and his partner in exposing these crimes, Robert Polner -- authors of the Albany tell-all, Three Men in A Room, posit -- in an Op-Ed piece published in The New York Times, that the time has come to break the cycle of governance by Tripartite, and reign in the divying up of spoils (read as, "our tax dollars") by what has been, for more than a decade, the New York State equivalent of a totalitarian Triumvirate.

If representative government is to return to New York State -- let alone trust and transparency -- Governor Spitzer must broom clean that room (perhaps whacking Mssrs. Bruno and Silver over the head with it from time to time), lifting the shades to let in the cleansing light of day, and opening the door -- or at least unlocking it -- so that our State Legislators may step in and participate in the process that, at one time, was known as democracy.
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Breaking the Power Brokers


ALBANY is infamous for its disdain for democracy. In fact, what’s been going on for years in the capital would be better called a triocracy because all important decisions that affect the third-largest state in the country are made by three people: the governor, the Senate majority leader and the Assembly speaker.

To those of us who believe in democracy, this situation should be embarrassing and unacceptable. For example, there are virtually no hearings in Albany on bills headed for passage, and the public, like 210 of their 212 elected representatives, has little access to information about legislative decision-making and even less chance for meaningful input.

Formal dissent, too, is rare, as voting within each party in Albany is almost always unanimous.

Practically no bill becomes law without the approval of both Sheldon Silver, speaker of the Assembly, and Joseph Bruno, the Senate majority leader, reflecting a subservience by lawmakers that has no peer in the United States Congress nor in many American statehouses.
New York’s legislative committees are just as lifeless. Only bills blessed by the leaders are released to the floor for a vote — a vote whose outcome is almost always a foregone conclusion.

The reward for lawmakers’ compliance includes party assistance and taxpayer-financed pork barrel morsels for community organizations in election years. Those who play by the rules of the leadership also benefit by having their names appended from time to time to bills of importance.

They receive committee assignments that can earn them as much as $40,000 on top of their $79,000 yearly salary, and their district lines are rigged in their favor for lifetime job security. Is it any wonder that while Democrats won big across the country this November, in Albany just one Republican seat in the state Senate went Democratic?

If little about the top-down decision-making structure in Albany has changed in recent decades,
Gov. Eliot Spitzer, with a nearly 70 percent mandate from voters, has promised to create a more open executive and Legislature. We believe he means what he has proposed so far and wants to fashion a democratic arena where policies and budgets are debated in an atmosphere of transparency, and fingerprints of accountability are left behind when decisions are made.

The new governor should indeed start with an overhauled budget process that for the first time in years reveals the details of how public money is to be raised and spent, along with the creation of a general accounting office to provide oversight that is independent of the executive and legislative branches. He should demand a revitalized legislative committee system whose chairmen and staffs will be chosen by their members, not by the house leaders, and who will be free to mark up bills and send them out to the floor for debate and amendment.

Mr. Spitzer also must make good on his avowal that he will end gerrymandering, which protects the party majorities and their entrenched leaders, and hand the task of redrawing district lines every decade to an impartial, nonpartisan, census-driven redistricting commission, as exists most prominently in Iowa.

Just as important, he should appoint a panel of distinguished New Yorkers to scrutinize and slash a symbol of unanswerable state government: the hundreds of public authorities, of which no one, including the state comptroller’s office, seems to know exactly how many exist. The authorities have amassed a huge amount of debt they will not be able to repay without one day turning to a new generation of taxpayers for a bailout.

Forcing change on Mr. Silver and Mr. Bruno will be tough, even in a moment that seems unusually conducive to change. The top legislative leaders, who prefer to operate secretively and are unwilling to cede meaningful power to the other 210 legislators, are deeply invested in the tactics of defense and delay. Mr. Spitzer will require strong public backing and relentless persistence to hammer out at least the semblance of democratic rule in Albany. It won’t be easy, but for the sake of democracy, it’s worth a try.

Seymour P. Lachman, a former state senator, is a professor of government at Wagner College. Robert Polner is the director of public affairs at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. They are the authors of “Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story of Power and Betrayal in an American Statehouse.”

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