Effective Policy Depends on Effective Politics

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerWe policy wonks like to believe that good ideas win in the end. That right makes might. That if we only got a chance to convince-oh, Barack Obama or John Boehner or Tom Richards or Maggie Brooks-then the right idea would win the day.

Think again. Truth to tell, ideas are powerful only when wielded effectively. It’s effective political action that shapes government, thus society.

That’s why my hat’s off to Andrew Cuomo. Vision and ideas aside for the moment, he’s demonstrated the power of a New York governor and wielded that power with skill that is, in recent years, unprecedented. Political scientists will tell you that New York’s constitution grants unusual power to the governor compared to most states’. It is the governor’s control of the budget that confers power on the office-and spending is always the central expression of power. The governor has the right and obligation to present a budget to the Legislature. Lawmakers are obligated to act on the Executive Budget before creating one of their own, so the governor controls the budgetary table.

While Andrew Cuomo surely learned many valuable lessons about politics from his father, it is George Pataki and David Paterson who expanded the power of the governor through their use of the budget process. Pataki and his budget director, Monroe County’s Bob King, sparked a legal battle with the Legislature over the extent to which lawmakers can alter the governor’s proposed budget. The courts sided with the governor, limiting lawmakers to increasing or decreasing appropriations rather than rewriting the language within a budget, in Silver v. Pataki.

Paterson and his budget director, Bob Megna (who still serves in that position), took budgetary power to a new level by playing an effective game of “chicken” with the Legislature. Once the budget deadline had passed, the government needed temporary authority to continue spending. Paterson began inserting portions of the Executive Budget into the budget extenders with the not-so-subtle message: “Pass this piece of my budget or take responsibility for shutting down New York State.” No one wanted to be blamed for closing state parks and sending state workers home. It is too early to tell who will pay a political price for the current state government shutdown in Minnesota, but you can bet someone will. New York’s legislators didn’t want to take that chance.

But having power and using it effectively are two different things. Cuomo won the budget battle both by swinging the big club he got from the constitution, Pataki and Paterson and by fighting special interests in kind-with money from his campaign war chest and a group of supportive business leaders. Further empowered by winning the budget battle, he targeted three carefully selected issues: Marriage equality appealed to the left, the property tax cap to the right, and ethics reform to everyone except the Legislature.

What followed was old-school politics-knowing what everyone wanted and what they needed, balancing interests off against one another and, by all accounts, personally engaging everyone who mattered by phone and in person. Politics is always about compromise. The key challenge is crafting solutions that get enough votes to pass without eviscerating the purpose of the law. New York’s statute books are riddled with bad compromises, legislation that accomplishes neither what the proposer intended nor what the opponents would have preferred.

Politicians can become obsessed with “the deal,” obsessed with writing copy for the next campaign brochure and accepting whatever is necessary to declare victory. Cuomo seems to have moved his agenda without sacrificing its essence to the goal of reaching a deal. The tax cap is a good example. It isn’t as draconian as opponents have claimed or supporters had hoped. By flexing on pension obligations, the governor eliminated the costly “contingency budget” farce in school districts, and threw up a higher political wall to spending growth.

Finally, Cuomo is thinking beyond this first year. Consider his push to renew power plant siting authority and to permit hydrofracking in the Marcellus shale. Both decisions-while good in themselves, in my view-are critical to his longstanding desire to deny the Indian Point nuclear power plants a new operating license. Replacing the power will be a challenge with new siting authority and impossible without it. He and I disagree about Indian Point. I prefer nuclear power’s disadvantages and risks to the disadvantages and risks of the likely alternatives. While I wouldn’t build a new plant in that location, I think that keeping the plants open isn’t reckless.

So I don’t agree with all that Andrew Cuomo stands for. But if ideas are ever going to win, policy wonks need political leaders who can drive a vision to action. That makes it possible for us to think big thoughts and urge new policy directions. To turn good ideas into good policies, we need elected officials who can get the job done.

ORIGINALLY published in Rochester Business Journal 7/15/11

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