Monday, May 03, 2010

Baying at the Moon

Reformers Frustrated

By Legislative Inaction

But They Keep Trying

By Henry J. Stern
April 30, 2010

The recurring theme in many of these columns in recent months has been the weakness of state government, particularly in the legislature. Without revisiting the muck of corruption, favoritism and self-dealing (and the mire of fiscal irresponsibility), we turn our attention to what can be done about the situation.

The decent and honorable organizations devoted to good government--Brennan Center for Justice, Citizens Union, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the New York Public Interest Research Group and the Women's City Club--have been struggling for years to reform state government. In recent years, they have traveled to Albany each spring to meet with legislators. On several occasions, New York Civic has taken the bus trip. Other reformers came from different parts of the state. We would hear speakers in the Egg, hold a small rally on the lawn, and split up to go to appointments with legislators who would see us.

Some of these conversations were interesting. I recall meeting Assemblyman Richard Brodsky in his office and he talked substance. Others were superficial: the visits were more like courtesy calls. In many cases, the legislator did not meet with us at all because he was enormously busy dealing with public issues, but left that task to a staff member, usually younger than the petitioners. The aide would listen to us, and promise that he would convey our message to his employer. The youths were always polite, and never argued with us, but it was clear to all but the most nave that we were not being taken seriously.

On occasions, legislators would promise to support our reforms. Of course, these commitments were contingent on the reforms being brought up for a vote on the floor of the legislature, an event which almost never took place. The more important the official we saw, the less believable he turned out to be.

At the end of the day, we returned to our buses and rode back to the city. The legislature was safe for another year.

At some point early in the annual ritual, it became clear to me that the legislature had no serious prospect of doing anything much that we recommended. Although there were good people there who did support our relatively innocuous proposals, there was little likelihood of any reforms reaching the floor, much less being adopted. There was simply no incentive for the legislature to change its ways, because its old ways served the interests of the leadership.

The Senate and the Assembly proved themselves to be quite responsive, however, to other petitioners. Lobbyists, union leaders, business corporations, and campaign contributors were able to communicate directly with elected officials, rather than being fobbed off on aides, as we were. The Albany universe was guided by a simple rule: 23-B. The first line of the rule is 'Money Talks', The second line, which brings the total rule to 23 letters in length, with the key word starting with the letter 'B' is available to you on request. Hint: The two lines rhyme. E-mail us and we will enlighten you. Second hint: I learned the rule from the Abscam hearings.

There is an old saying, "Fool me once, it's your fault; fool me twice, it's my fault." The saying loosely applies to conventional attempts at reform. The public officials we see are generally sympathetic; those openly hostile do not meet with us, nor do we seek them out. They usually say they will do what they can, and many of them in fact do what they can. Unfortunately, what they can do is generally not much, unless they have the consent of the legislative leaders. The leaders do not approve any measures which might have an adverse impact on their privileges or on their leverage over others, which is understandable from the point of view of maintaining the levers of political power and influence.

Essentially, reformers ask politicians to yield some of their authority for what we perceive as the greater public good, the freer dissemination of ideas, and the right to make decisions based on one's own judgment of the merits, rather than others. Those in power often see their own interests as synonymous with the public welfare, or in the alternative believe that their own leadership is essential to the maintenance of order in government. They are not generally willing to yield anything to anyone without being compelled to do so. The very qualities that earned them a position of leadership are dedicated to maintaining that position against any rivals or any proposal which would circumscribe their authority over others.

What this leads to is that external pressure is the most effective way to secure change. In order to support nonpartisan redistricting, legislators must believe that it is in their own political interest, and that whatever damage might be done by a district more fairly drawn is less than the damage that might be done to their prospects of election by the exposure of their refusal to consent to independent districting.

That requires people of stature and influence to unite in favor of independent nonpartisan redistricting, a subject which has often been viewed as a technical issue, a diversion for mapmakers, and a device to protect neighborhoods whose population is changing, ethnically or economically. The leaders we need are people whose interests go beyond particular districts or a single criterion. They are people who simply want a level playing field. That tired cliche sums it up. It is a fairness issue. And, when they understand the issue, people basically want fair competition, not a stacked deck or a fixed fight. What is notable in 2010 is that people who are now out of politics, having held high office, feel the necessity to involve themselves in public issues.

Part of the reason for this is the sad state into which New York State has sunk due to the ineptitude of its executive branch and the irresponsibility of its legislature.

Civic leaders realize, just as they did in Fiscal Crisis 1 in 1974-75, and Fiscal Crisis 2 in 1990-91, that wider participation is necessary to help the city and state in their financial difficulties. The city is well managed, certainty compared with the state, but it too faces a substantial gap between anticipated receipts and expenditures. The city's gap for 2011 is much smaller than the state's, but it will require further reductions when the mayor presents his budget to the Council.

THE BRONX. NO THONX. Ogden Nash (not Avenue), (1902-71)

Meanwhile, the political pressure on City Hall appears to be primarily from the left. The City Council almost unanimously rejected a development plan for the Kingsbridge Armory, in which a private developer was willing to sink over $300 million in creating a shopping mall, because the retail employees would not be paid as much as the unions wanted. The construction unions wanted the projects approved, because it meant thousands of jobs for their members, but the department store union opposed it. The opposition was shortsighted, because the mall would take years to build, and no one knows for sure what the economic situation will be then or how many people will be employed in retail stores. The rejection may help protect existing department stores from competition. It is a serious blow, however, to economic development and the north Bronx, and is likely to discourage other proposals to build stores and create jobs. The Bronx is the poorest borough of the five, and the most in need of relatively unskilled jobs. Its anti-business leadership is unlikely to encourage economically feasible development, and there is no other kind.

StarQuest #664 04.30.2010 1270wds

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