Monday, June 29, 2009

Time Pressure Mounts
On Senate Squabblers
As Deadlines Approach

By Henry J. Stern
June 29, 2009

It’s Monday afternoon, Day 22 of the State Senate stalemate. The current impasse follows the Republican coup on June 8, in which new leadership was elected and installed before Democratic staff members turned off the lights and the microphones in the Senate chamber.

There is a June 30 deadline on some legislation, including mayoral control of the schools and tax increases, so it is possible that there will be some action today or tomorrow. But the two parties are still divided over the apportionment of the spoils, the six-figure staff jobs that are dispensed by the Senate majority leader.

The protracted dispute has reduced confidence in state government to a new low. It was five years ago that the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School first said that New York State had “the most dysfunctional legislature in the country.” The Spitzer and Paterson administrations have not checked the downhill slide, which culminated in this month's coup, or putsch, depending on which side you're on.

The legislators' squabble may have helped the 31% popularity of Governor Paterson, who has received some credit for criticizing both sides, including the senators from his own party, his colleagues for 22 years. So far, however, his efforts have only amounted to words, and there is some feeling that that is how the intervention will remain: verbal..

So far, the courts have rightly refused to take jurisdiction of the disputes within the legislative branch. "As luck would have it" (Rule 17-A), the legislature has denied the judges a pay raise for the last eleven years, not even granting cost-of-living increases. During that time, the consumer price index has risen 36% in the New York metropolitan area, so their real income has been substantially reduced.

The judges filed a lawsuit in the state courts, alleging that their salaries have effectively been diminished by the Assembly's linking them to the salaries that legislators receive for part-time positions. The lawmakers have practically unlimited opportunity to earn outside income, and are not required to report it publicly except in the broadest categories

Those of you who have traveled this road with us over the last three weeks generally join in our conclusions, as far as we can tell from your responses to these e-mails. They are:

The senators are looking out for personal and partisan interests rather than the benefit of the public.

They show little regard for editorial or other criticism, because they believe they are safe from reprisals in their comfortable, gerrymandered districts and long-term mailing privileges.

There are no other senators who have demonstrated unique talent for leadership, although it is likely that some of them are more able than their behavior has demonstrated.

The media have made the two senators in the middle, Espada and Monserrat, particular targets of abuse. Although both men are facing serious legal issues on other matters, the result of their Albany somersaults may, in the long run, not be as injurious as it appears to some. It may be helpful, in the long run, to reveal the legislators for the self-serving clowns that a number of them may happen to be.

As to how to extricate state government from its self-crippling stalemate, the legislators will probably do it by themselves if and when they feel sufficient financial pressure. We cite Rule 23-B: “Money talks…” (The reason this rule is numbered 23-B and not 10-M is that it has an unwritten predicate. Anyone who desires enlightenment can e-mail us and receive an immediate, confidential response.)

Although many New Yorkers think the senators are acting foolishly, and no one has anything good to say about the circus that has now run for three weeks, there is not yet a sense of immediate urgency on the part of the general public that anything dreadful is actually happening.

It is widely believed that legislators usually do more harm when they act wrongly than when they refrain from any action. There is an old saying: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe when the Legislature is in session.” It is attributed to Judge Gideon Tucker and Mark Twain, among others. If said recently, it might be Yogi Berra and Woody Allen.

You can find those words posted in some offices along with another old chestnut: “A lawyer’s time and advice is his stock in trade,” usually accompanied by a drawing of Abraham Lincoln, who is said to have written that aphorism on an envelope after finishing the Gettysburg Address. The latter saying is displayed as advice to the public not to seek free legal services under the guise of social conversation.

There are remedies for the present standoff, some more forceful and jarring than others. We will propose them in a few days, thus giving the legislature a last chance to correct the situation themselves. The judges have been similarly considerate, and they must be presumed to be wiser than we, if not that much wealthier.

Give the boys time to work it out the old fashioned way, by cap and trade, now that a deadline (Tuesday midnight) should be hanging over their heads as the psychodrama plays out. We did not contemplate, however, that mayoral control of the New York City school system would end up being held hostage in an unrelated dispute.

New York’s incumbent protection laws effectively diminish voters’ opportunity to hold legislators accountable for their conduct. No effective reform of Albany is possible until the people have a real chance to turn the scoundrels out. If they had that opportunity, many current legislators would act more responsibly and creatively. In the current state of affairs, their party leaders can punish them for thinking for themselves but the voters cannot. In that situation, where do you think their primary allegiance will lie?

We await reports of today’s antics, but hold out the hope that the relentless advance of the calendar may stimulate the solons to legislsate, in order to avoid further embarrassment to the state and to themselves.

BTW, Rule 9-I (“I’ll be back”) is a popular culture version of the words spoken by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur on March 20, 1942, as he left the Philippines just ahead of an advancing Japanese army. “I shall return,” said the General, and he did, just as the Terminator did – to blow up a Los Angeles police station in James Cameron’s T1 epic.

Does art imitate life, or vice versa? We look at the Legislature as if it were floating in a twilight zone, somewhere between the ineffective interbellum League of Nations of the 1930’s and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, home to the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter, whose deliberations, described by Lewis Carroll in 1865, are evocative of the proceedings we have witnessed in Albany in June 2009.


#568 06.29.2009 1131 wds

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