Senate Dems Put
Squeeze on Labor
By Henry J. Stern
March 25, 2010
There is often a gray area between a crime and what is merely outrageous behavior. This is true not only in the legislature, but also in political life generally. A solicitation by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee falls into that murk: the Attorney General or a District Attorney could convene a grand jury to seek an indictment, or he could decline to do so.
As Fred Dicker reported in the New York Post yesterday and today, the Democrats have written to a number of union leaders in New York State asking for $50,000 each in donations to the party.
The story broke on page one of yesterday's Post, under the block-letter headline, GOV'T BUY THE PEOPLE; Dems Want Union Cash for Access. If anyone missed American history in middle school, the Post headline is a pun on a quote in the concluding sentence of Abraham Lincoln's immortal Gettysburg Address:
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
It is both ironic and pathetic that the Lincoln quotation, which shows government at its most noble, is punned on in the headline of a story about the degradation of local public officials.
Dicker's lede in Wednesday's story:
"Democrats in the state Senate area up for sale and they dont come cheap!
"The Capitol's scandalous 'pay to play' culture descended to a new low as Democratic lawmakers told top labor leaders that they would have to pony up $50,000 each in donations if they want special access, The Post has learned.
"In a shocking letter to union bosses who are battling state budget cuts, state Sen. Jeff Klein of The Bronx offered to sell them 'chairmanships' on a newly created 'Labor Advisory Council.'
"'Advisory Council chairs will have the unique opportunity to advise the Senate Dems on the structure and focus on the Labor Advisory Council'; says the letter from Klein, chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
"For labor leaders unwilling to kick in $50,000, Klein offered a second-tier 'general membership' at $25,000 apiece."
Thursday's follow up article, on p2, was headlined MIKE RIPS PAY-TO-PLAY AMID PUSH FOR PROBE. Written by Dicker and Brendan Scott, the story began:
"Mayor Bloomberg yesterday branded efforts by state Senate Democrats to extract $50,000 campaign contributions from union leaders 'the ultimate pay to play,' as outraged good-government groups urged a criminal probe of the blatant fund-raising demand.
"'Pay to play is just something we shouldnt have,' declared Bloomberg."
The story continued with expressions of shock and distaste from lesser lights, some of whom demanded criminal investigations of the matter. The letter was defended, however, by Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson, who insisted that the Republican opposition had regularly engaged in identical practices when it was in the majority for decades until last year
"I'm not forcing anybody to do anything, and if you look in that budget, we saved some of those [labor] groups also with respect to that. So Im not asking anybody for anything, the access is there, open' he continued."
The Post editorialized on the subject today on p30 under the headline FOR SALE AND STUPID. The editorial's lede was: "New York State Senate Democrats aren't the least bit subtle."
"Jeff Klein, who chairs the Democrats' Senate Campaign Committee, sent a letter to union bosses this week promising 'an exclusive meeting' with Senate Dem honchos.
"The price tag: $50,000.
"The missive comes as the Senate is holding a whip hand over billions in budget cuts sought by Gov. Paterson -- cuts that would fall heavily on unionized teachers and health-care employees. And it comes just as Klein, according to Republicans, arranged for the Democrats to slash $180 million from the budget that would have gone to unionized workers.
"What a coincidence, then, that Klein is offering what he termed 'an opportunity to have face time with the [Senate Democratic] leadership.'
"And if 50 grand is too rich for your blood, for a mere $25,000 labor fat cats can become 'general members' of the party's Labor Advisory Council, allowing them to 'actively participate in . . . essential policy conversations.'
"The solicitation is classic Albany 'pay to play,' no doubt about that."
"Klein's letter is so egregious that it begs for an independent investigation.
"This sure seems like more than Senate Democrats just being their usual clumsy-moron selves.
"A lot more."
Six days remain before the State Constitutional deadline for the adoption of a budget for fiscal 2011, and it is clear that the deadline will not be met. That should come as no surprise, the budget has been late nineteen times in the last quarter century. The Ravitch report has proposed moving the start of the state fiscal year from April 1 to July 1, which would be eminently sensible. But as a Constitutional amendment, it would require the approval of two separate elected legislatures before being submitted to the voters in referendum, which means it could not take effect until 2012.
Even if the deadline were postponed for months, there is no assurance that the new deadline would be followed, since the Legislature has a lengthy history of ignoring its own rules. In truth, though, it is not of ultimate importance precisely when they get around to it. What matters more is whether the budget is balanced, and financially responsible. A budget in which expenditures exceed revenues year after year cannot be sustained, even if it were to be adopted on March 31, or on an even earlier date.
Under a law passed during the Pataki administration, paychecks for state legislators -- whose base annual salaries are $79,500 apiece -- are withheld until a budget is passed. Once the budget is adopted, however, they receive all the back salary which has been accumulated, so the net result of this law is an enforced savings plan for senators and assembly members. (The law was passed as part of a complex transaction involving state approval of charter schools and legislative pay raises.)
That is an example of what happens when one looks closely at the state budget and the laws relating to its adoption. There is an exception to almost every rule, and if one cannot be found, the rule can simply be ignored because there is highly unlikely to find a self-enforcing provision that would ensure compliance. A Legislature that makes the laws can usually immunize itself against violations of its own rules. Individual members, however, are vulnerable to prosecution if they are caught stealing, taking bribes or committing other crimes of venality or violence. That is a path that too many of them have trod.
AMPLIFICATION: In its 5-1 decision February 23 on judicial salaries, the New York State Court of Appeals did not order the Legislature to increase the compensation of judges. What the Court did rule was that it violated the separation of powers doctrine to tie judicial salaries to compensation received by legislators or other public officials. You can link to the Court of Appeals' majority opinion, by Judge Eugene Pigott, and the dissent, by Judge Robert Smith, here. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman recused himself from consideration of the case because he had previously been involved in the litigation.
StarQuest #657 03.25.2010 1269wds