Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Drain The Swamp

The Times Calls NY State Legislature
"Swamp of Intrigue and Corruption"
Threatens to Oppose All Incumbents

Henry J. Stern
October 20, 2009

The New York Times expressed its outrage Monday at our classically dysfunctional state government.

In its lead editorial, FED UP WITH ALBANY, the newspaper criticized the governor and denounced the legislature in unsparing terms. We quote:

“New Yorkers have been complaining for many years about their abysmal state government, but it has simply grown worse. The state has become a national embarrassment, a swamp of intrigue and corruption, a $131 billion monster controlled by a crowd of smug officials whose main concern is keeping their soft jobs. By now, most New Yorkers have given up hope that these officials are capable of cleaning up their own mess.

“The clock is ticking. In one year, unless the Albany crowd pulls off some miracle, which we doubt will happen, it will be up to the voters to get them out, all of them [Our italics].

To recap some recent outrages:

“Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who promised to reform Albany on Day One, was forced to resign on Day 441 after his bizarre antics with a prostitute. His replacement, David Paterson, has been weak and ineffective. The state comptroller was forced to resign after confessing to a felony involving his misuse of state resources. Three of his close associates have been arrested on charges of bribery and grand larceny.

“A dozen legislators in the last few years have been convicted of serious crimes including bribery, mail fraud, extortion and racketeering. Joseph Bruno, the senate majority leader, who resigned last year, is fighting federal charges that he collected more than $3 million in fees from companies trying to do business with the state.

“After failing to do the people’s business for years, the Senate was shut down for a month this summer by two Democratic senators. Pedro Espada Jr., one of them, is under investigation for not filing campaign finance forms and over allegations that he funneled state money into his own business. The other, Hiram Monserrate, was convicted last week of assaulting his girlfriend.

“How do we let such people anywhere near a legislature? The answer is in voters’ hands. It is time to change the culture.”

In its editorial, the Times specifies six areas where reform is needed: ethics laws, campaign finance, budgetary disclosure, pension funds, ballot access and gerrymandering. The newspaper promises to pursue these issues in more detail. The editorial continues:

“In coming weeks, we will outline some of the ways this inbred system allows so many lawmakers to abuse the public trust, and how new faces in Albany could change it. Our goals are to make a once-respected state run better and more openly, to make elections fairer and more competitive, and to create a more ethical government with tougher rules and real enforcement.”

The Times concludes: “In many states, reform only comes when people are truly ashamed of their lawmakers and vote them out of office. New York’s moment of shame is now.”

You can link to the entire editorial here.

Our reaction is to agree with the Times, and to express appreciation that the newspaper has expressed its concerns so forcefully. However, these points have been made repeatedly over the years by many newspapers and civic organizations. We have been reporting on this for seven years, while the legislature has only sunk further into the “swamp of intrigue and corruption” to which the Times alludes.

The egregious misbehavior of too many of its members has brought the Senate into a level of disrepute previously regarded as unattainable. The so-called “good members” have allowed themselves to be used as catspaws by their greedier colleagues. The result is a leaderless Senate with extremely limited ability to transact business of any sort except the distribution of spoils, at which it excels. To close the $4 billion deficit in this year’s budget, in the face of their supporters and benefactors’ demands for immunity from budget cuts seems beyond the range of possibility for the Senate.

Politics, however, is a business of surprises. The consequences of the prospective failure of the legislature to close the gap cannot yet be predicted. What is most likely to occur is that the solons will not in fact close the gap, but will proclaim that they have. They will borrow money from agency funds which they have doubtful authority to drain, and thereby increase the interest obligation that the state must pay each year before it funds current expenditures.

If as strong a governor as Schwarzenegger could not succeed in preventing the California legislature from irresponsible spending, what can be expected from someone as “weak and ineffective,” to quote the Times, as Paterson has so far shown himself to be.

If our governor had stuck to his guns and his speeches on fiscal responsibility, and not caved to the Senate and Assembly in March when they adopted this year’s swollen budget, he would have more credibility today, even if his vetoes had been overridden. It is hard to choose between people who intentionally do wrong by siding with the special interests and their lobbyists, and those who do wrong out of their own weakness and insecurity, because they don’t want to be on the losing side at any time. If Paterson had been consistent, he would not have been abandoned by the President, and left naked to his enemies.

New York State has nineteen million residents. There must be at least a few hundred whose principles and fiscal policies reasonable people can support. So far there is not a man or woman in either house in either party who has offered proactive responsible leadership in attempting to avert impending fiscal disaster. The Comptroller issues the customary warnings, but he is basically an unhappy passenger on a runaway train. Who will apply the emergency brake? Will it be too late?

The Times editorial yesterday discussed at length (1154 words). Albany’s serious problems of ethics, disclosure, privilege, and procedure. We welcome their concern. The Daily News and the Post have frequently expressed similar sentiments, sometimes in vivid language. We have cited their complaints, and understand the frustration that the press, academics and civic organizations have felt for years with our self-contained and self-serving state government, responsive only to special interests and the lobbyists who feed their coffers.

BTW, the substance of what the New York State legislature actually does is nothing to be proud of either. That deserves its own series of editorials. We invite mainstream media to look at what Albany approves, what it disapproves, and why it makes its choices.

PS. An excellent op-ed by Bill Hammond, on p21 of today’s News, is headlined ALBANY INSANITY, CAUGHT ON TAPE. It describes a recent public hearing on the use of stenographers at the Workers Compensation Board. Hammond’s article captures the essence of what we have been describing. If you have read this far, you deserve a treat, and the column, which is really funny, will be your reward. We strongly recommend that you link to it here.

StarQuest #608 10.20.2009 1158wds

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