Reform on the Ropes

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Albany. A city where the special interests ran amok, a lone figure emerged from the flurry of favors to right government wrongs. The year was 2004. And outfitted in mask and cape was an avenger long forgotten. It was the return of our hero: Reform.

Strengthened by the Brennan Center’s declaration that the New York State Legislature was the “most dysfunctional” in the nation, Reform challenged the Albany status quo that year. Some may have said he fought bravely. Others, though, believed our hero had nothing more to show for the effort except for a couple of rule changes and the defeat of a few incumbents.

In 2005, Reform seemed to have gotten some allies from with the fair city of Albany. An army of allies, the State Legislature, announced that the root of evil in the state’s capitol was the power of the governor. They proclaimed that it could be tamed, with the help of our hero Reform. But others wondered about our masked crusader. Was this army of legislators nothing more than imposters and opportunists, not really Reform’s true allies at all?

What the army of legislators was up-in-arms about was how the governor had the upper hand when it came to the time of budget drafting. Nothing spoke power more than driving that budget.

The state’s Court of Appeals had, in 2004, upheld the governor’s superior powers when it came to making budgets. Gov. George Pataki sued to get affirmation that he could veto spending approved by lawmakers on constitutional grounds… that he could change policy within the text of budget bills… that the legislature could only accept or reject those budget bills, not redo them.

And now our hero – Reform – was being tag-teamed with a ballot initiative designed to curb the governor’s powers in the budget drafting process.

But Reform and his new allies did not win the day. Voters were unconvinced that the masked avenger was really living up to his billing. And they said no to that ballot initiative..

Oh, our hero was in a pickle. Had the people lost faith in him?

Perhaps 2006 would represent a chance to revive Reform. This, after all, is the year that the governor’s office is up for grabs. Wouldn’t Reform’s might make sense in this election? An article in the local weekly publication – City Newspaper – suggests some possibilities.

But sadly, dear friends, the State Legislature has again whispered in the ear of our hero, Reform. “We can get him this time,” they told him. And so, undaunted by the previous year’s failure, the state lawmakers brought back the budget initiative they so desperately want to link to Reform. They called again for changes in the budget process: Moving the fiscal year from April 1 to May 1; creating an independent budget office; requiring the governor to submit separate school aid appropriations on a two-year basis. It was all about trying again to wrest budget-drafting power from the governor.

This past week, however, the current governor used his veto pen to strike down this proposal.

So is our hero vanquished? Is Reform no more?

No.

Not if we stop confusing good ol’ Reform with a fight over who has what power in creating state spending plans. Besides lawmakers haven’t shown themselves worthy of grabbing a larger share of that power (heck, they won’t even agree to reveal how they spend member item funds – that money more commonly referred to as pork). Not that the current budget process is working well.

Our hero – Reform – can only really rise up again, if he is again linked to the right set of principles. Bring back the sensibility of the Brennan Center report. And then really go at the root problem – the stagnant electoral system that fails to allow for accountability.

Reform should champion a fairer system of redrawing state legislative district lines – redistricting. It should push the gubernatorial candidates to say they won’t sign any new district maps without an independent commission drafting them. Reform should also do battle with the forces of darkness at work in the lax lobbying regulations. And he should muscle up to improve campaign financing laws.

In short – the incumbency protection plan that characterizes our electoral process should be Reform’s foe.

And that, people of the Empire State, would be a Reform worthy of admiration.

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