Too Flip?

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Thought provoking pieces often mean provoking people to disagree with your thoughts.

And so it was with the latest post on a reform measure in New York here or here

Matthew Maguire of the New York State Business Council complies a solid blog on upstate news. During his October 31 listing, he takes me to task for minimizing the potential impact of Proposal One, which would give more budget-making power to the legislature.

It’s an interesting essay and a good case for redistricting reform. But that sniffy stuff suggesting that opponents of the RSA (Proposal One) should focus instead on a reform that would have "far more meaning" grossly underestimates, in our view and the view of a huge and diverse collection of policy-oriented New York, the damage that would be done by this. Good points on redistricting, Mike, but you’re wrong to pooh-pooh this thing.

I see his point. And I wish that I had made mine even clearer. I’m not aiming the comments at one side of the Proposal One argument. Merely, I suggest that the energy expended by all sides on this debate would be better spent on a reform that, in my estimation, would have a far greater impact on the workings of the legislature.

But, hey, I don’t mind the debate over this. And never when it comes from a guy like Mr. Maguire.

One Real Proposal for Reform

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Proposal One on the New York ballot seems to scare the heck out of some folks.

The proposal claims to reform state government by changing the way a budget is passed in New York. More authority would go to the legislature and a contingency budget would be enacted if lawmakers can’t meet a later budget deadline of May 1.

Opponents to Proposal One have taken the Halloween approach. Scary words are coming from people like Gov. George Pataki, organizations like the Business Council of New York and editorial pages around the state. They say that the reform is no reform at all. They say that instead of "three men in a room" passing a budget (the governor, the Assembly Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader), it would create "two men in a room" (eliminating the governor).Opponents hope the "boo" tactics will convince you to vote no on the proposal. Pataki calls it "dangerous." One group has taken to carting around a gigantic pink pig (of the pork barrel variety) to demonstrate opposition (it visited Rochester last week)

All this effort. Too bad it’s not centered on another reform effort that would have far more meaning.

I mean rewiring New York State’s redistricting process.

It’s not that I don’t care about reforming the budget – this state surely needs it. But I’d rather see the time and effort expended on a ballot initiative that would have maximum return on the investment.

Other states are tackling that redistricting. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is priming the pump for something called Proposition 77. This proposal would give the job of drawing state and congressional lines to a three-member panel of retired judges. Right now California legislators carve up the state, just as they do in New York.

Right now the redistricting process, which happens every ten years, turns into an incumbent protection plan. Just like it does in New York.

Schwarzenegger has apparently been stumping for this outside of his home state. He visited Ohio, where voters in that state will also have a ballot measure to move the redistricting duties from legislators to an independent commission.

I’d be thrilled to see the Terminator visiting the Empire State to help rip away the rewriting of legislative maps from the hands of partisan politicians.

Some states, like Washington and Arizona, already have independent panels working up the lines every decade.

Yet there’s not a whisper about such reforms in New York. Not a peep. And there ought to be.

Visit the New York Public Interest Research Group’s web page on redistricting and you’ll see how corrosive the current partisan process is to accountability. It plays a huge role in sapping competitiveness from most state legislative and congressional districts.

For example, NYPIRG reports that, thanks to partisan redistricting mapmakers, only 11 percent of the 212 state legislative districts have close enough enrollments between the two major parties for competitive races.

Just look at Louise Slaughter and Joe Robach for an understanding. Slaughter’s redrawn congressional district took her from one based largely in Monroe County to a headphone-shaped monstrosity that curls up from Rochester, goes north and west through Niagara Falls and snakes back down into Buffalo. Robach’s State Senate district is two blobs (one stationed in Greece and Parma, the second in the city and Brighton) that are connected by a threadlike stretch barely the width of a street.

These so-called districts are jokes. They mock the idea that a district should have a common community connection. These are manipulated district lines that ensure one party (the one in control of redistricting) can easily win a legislative seat.

And without competition, elected lawmakers can believe they are untouchable come Election Day. That emboldens them to pay less attention to the regular voter. That makes them feel they can take more liberties with policy. Pleasing the mapmakers (the elite of the ruling party) becomes part of the equation.

Independent mapmakers, however, could take into account the connectedness of a district – and whether there is true electoral competition in districts.

The angst over the budget reform proposal is all well and good.

But a reform of the redistricticting process would come with the component of accountability.

And that kind of reform would give voters the power to assess whether the elected official is really paying attention to their issues.

In other words, the redistricting reform would put voters in the position of easily make other "reforms" happen.

© Copyright 2005, WXXI

Forget the Czar, Embrace the Zero

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William Carpenter is the latest to gain the strange title of "czar."

It’s unofficial, of course.

Officially County Executive Maggie Brooks has elevated Carpenter, the county’s budget director, to a special assistant. His role will be defined as finding cost savings in places that, as she put it, "impact the budget the most."

She means Medicaid. She worries about the rising cost of the entitlement program creating a permanent hole in the county’s budget.

"Which is why we are creating this new Medicaid Czar position, for lack of a better term," Brooks said. "That will provide a specific focus to those areas that will continue to grow, continue to impact our budget, continue to increase the size of the deficit as we move forward."

You’ve got to love that term – czar. In a nation that prides itself on democratic principals, the term swings far from that ideal.

A czar or tsar is linked to a person with extraordinary power – an emperor. It’s been used for the leaders of empires throughout the ages, but is best known as the title for those who lead Russia up to the revolution.

How in the world would the good ol’ US of A find itself calling people czars?

Well it usually rises when a problem looks to be fairly unsolvable, and the governing leadership wants a person in charge who spend every waking moment trying to cure it.

The nation’s war on drugs appears to be the time when the title took off. That was when the first President Bush appointed Bill Bennett as director of the U.S. Drug Control Policy back in 1989. All the rest of those directors are known as drug czars. And you know how that war on drugs has been going.

Back in the mid-1990s, Mayor Bill Johnson named Van White as the city’s crime czar. White moved on and the title faded away. And I don’t need to remind you how much violence is still prevalent in the community today.

Nowadays czars are everywhere.

A few months ago, Philadelphia appointed a "gun czar" to take on the problem of gun crimes. Congressional Democrats are yelling for the president to create the position of "flu bug czar" to attack the possibility of an Asian Bird Flu epidemic. Plug the word into Google and you notice that headline writers have taken to using the word czar as shorthand for the leader of a government agency.

The czar appears when elected leaders want to look like they’re getting really, really, really serious about something. But it can also look like a bit of surrender by a government official.

"Medicaid czar" Carpenter, for example, wants to make changes that can only be made with state approval: changes to managing prescription drugs and rule changes to require some recipients to work.

So unlike the emperors of yore, Carpernter’s role can only be that of lobbyist, someone who depends on others to make the change real.

And, of course, that has been how the county has defined the problem of its systemic budget shortfall. Most of the nearly billion Monroe County budget is mandated by Albany, cry county leaders. In the county budget, they say that more than three quarters of the spending is mandated – out of their control.

But the rest is not – about $214 million. So why not show Albany how it’s done with what’s left? After all, the budget also shows that the controllable spending (the so-called non-mandated spending) rose at a slightly higher rate than the mandated.

Why not take those funds and build from the ground up?

Remember the phrase "zero-based budgeting?" It’s the one embraced by fiscal conservatives. It basically means that instead of using prior funding levels from government departments as the starting point for crafting a budget… you start from zero.

Then you make every budget item justify itself.

Some talk the game of zero-based budgeting, but rarely do it. Because it can mean that some departments get big cuts while others gain more money. That makes government employees angry.

But a budget is the grandest political document of all. It’s not about dollars and cents… it’s really about that government leader’s priorities. A true embrace of zero-based budgeting would allow the government leader to make his or her priorities the number one determinant. And if reigning in the spending is a high-priority, this would allow more room to show that.

A czar might be nice, may sound tough. But it’s the zero that will truly show the intentions of a government.

© Copyright 2005, WXXI

True Believers

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We all know about Tom Golisano’s big conversion.

Rochester’s successful businessman is, of course, associated with maverick runs at the governor’s seat from a third party line that he, for all intents and purposes, put on the map – the Independence Party.

Now Golisano has registered Republican. So what happens to the faithful the Independence Party’s true believers?

The Independence Party was born in Monroe County founded in the early 1990s as an alternative to the major parties. They would shun big donors and the top-down hierarchy of the Republicans and Democrats. They’d push for reform of government and appeal to the disaffected voter. It attracted a bushel of true believers in the wake of Ross Perot’s presidential run. No one with deeper pockets that Golisano.

But look at the party now. One former Monroe County Independence Party chairman (Dave Stockmeister) is running as a Democrat. A previous chairman (Don Porto) was openly courting George Pataki back in 2002 to run on the state party’s line. They have fended off insurgent attempts by the likes of left-leaning Lenora Fulani.

And now their champion is a Republican.

You’ve got to feel for the true believers still left. How many are left is hard to say.
You have to think that it’s a discouraging time.

History might provide them with a few sources of solace and comfort:

—The socially-conservative Democrats in the town of Greece. In the hey-day of the county Democrats, back in the late 1980s, a big source of support came from Greece Democrats. They were social conservatives but nonetheless sided with the Democratic Party.
Then, one-by-one, the defection to the Republican side began. There was John Auberger, now the Greece Town Supervisor, and Bill Reilich, now a state Assemblyman. The nail in the coffin, however, was Joe Robach. The son of Roger Robach, the state Assemblyman who perhaps best personified the Greece Democrats. Joe took over the Assembly seat. But we all know his story. He bolted from the party almost four years ago after feeling burned by the more liberal downstate Assembly leadership. He ran for the Senate, as a Republican. Now all that’s left of the movement is Fred Amato, who can’t run for reelection as a county legislator because of term limits. Whoever may be left in this camp should easily be able to reach out to the Indy Party true-believers.

—If you get outside of politics, more sympathy could come from the fans of the baseball team in Oakland, California. Back in the 1990s, fans of the Oakland Athletics (or A’s) embraced a baseball team that fielded a bunch of scruffy misfits who played the game well. They didn’t have a ton of money to spend on salaries and were the polar opposite to the big spending, corporate New York Yankees. But the A’s found themselves playing the Yankees often in the playoffs.
Their champion was a burly, long-haired, unshaven slugger named Jason Giambi.
When Giambi’s contract with the A’s ended, he put himself on the open market, available to the highest bidder. He shocked the faithful by accepting a big money contract from, of all teams, the Yankees.
When he announced his decision, Giambi had cut his hair and shaved his goatee, per the Yankees corporate dictates. He announced that his true love had always been the Yankee tradition and that, should he ever go to the Hall of Fame, he would wear the Yankee cap. Those who loved Giambi could certainly help those who backed Golisano.

—Another group of sympathizers are scattered across the country. These are the hardcore music fans who loved folk music. In the early 1960s these folkies loved their icons – Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez. They played acoustic guitar and sang solo on stage – leaning on their lyrics and voice to get out the message.
But no one was bigger than the man from Minnesota, who changed his name from Robert Zimmerman to — Bob Dylan. He played his acoustic guitar and sang about answers blowin’ in the wind and times that were a-changin’.
Dylan was a phenomenon. A folk king. Until the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, that is. On that day Dylan first walked on stage with other musicians. And they played amplified instruments, electric guitars, backed by drums. The folkies were shocked. Legend has it that fellow folk musician Pete Seeger tried to sabotage the amplifiers of Dylan. During that tour, Dylan continued playing electric. Fans yelled Judas at him.
But we all know what happened. Dylan allowed his music to grow beyond the folk, acoustic sound.

Left in the dust was the folkie faithful.

Just as it appears the Independence Party disciples are now being left behind.

Should an Indy Party true believer reach out to some of these other sympathizers, one would hope the message they would get is this: Never invest yourself in a single iconic force. Just like the Robachs and the Giambis and Dylans Tom Golisano is wedded to his own vision without affirmation from someone else.

You should do the same.

© Copyright 2005, WXXI

Beware the Knee Jerk

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Back in the summer, when the mayoral candidates were arguing about police protection in the city, I argued that people ought to look at the proposals and judge whether or not they were worth doing.

Remember how Norwood called for scrapping the police reorganization – which sounded good until you looked at the reasons behind it. Duffy, the former police chief, said that it helped the department be more flexible and it also helped them keep down overtime costs.

I said that people need to examine whether the medicine can really be the cure… and what the side-effects might be.

I applied the same logic to John Parrinello’s call for "a (police) car and a spotlight on every drug house in the city." That, I wrote, would mean plenty of extra cops, with extra expense.

Then I leaned on Mayor Bill Johnson. He mentioned – and this was back in June – that some people wanted a curfew. "I like the romantic idea of a curfew," Johnson said then. "But the curfew has to be enforced. That means you have to have police officers out on the street." Then he wondered where the city police would deposit the kids who are out past curfew but are driven to house without parents. Most of them are on the street to begin with because of no parental guidance.

"Many cities have to creating holding centers for those kids," he said.

So now, with ministers and elected officials resurrecting the curfew as a way to curb youth violence, doesn’t it behoove us to ask: Is this medicine really the cure?

Joe on Joe

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I had to admit there was a bit of irony in the statement made by Joe Morelle, the Democratic Assemblyman who is now the county Democratic Chairman.

The topic was the state Senate. For the first time in awhile, the Democrats think they can claim that branch of the legislative machine from the Republicans. There are a few Senate Districts, held by Republicans, that would appear to be fertile ground for Democrats.

One of them is held by State Sen. Joe Robach, the Republican who represents the city and parts of some outlying towns. Everyone knows Robach’s back story: son of a Democratic Assemblyman who ascended to his father’s Assembly seat, as a Democrat himself. But when Robach thought he was being dissed by the Assembly leadership, he switched parties and ran as a Republican for the Senate. He won.

When Morelle was asked if Robach was a target, he said: "Joe Robach is the kind who should be coming back to the Democratic Party."

When I told Morelle that it wasn’t likely to happen… he came back with this: "I dare say I wouldn’t make that prediction."

Later Morelle said that the Democrats are targeted downstate Republican senators and "my hope is that when the Senate Democrats take over the Senate, that Joe Robach will come back to the Democratic Party."

My guess is that Robach will probably not have to worry; the GOP will likely hold that fort.

But wouldn’t it be ironic if the man who jumped to the Republican Senate in search of a responsive leadership was dealt back to minority status? Stranger things have happened.

Get A Little Closer

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Does the president of the Monroe County Legislature really believe that a government closest to the people means a government with a large number of representatives? Does he really believe that a raft of legislators equals a legislature in touch with its constituents?

You may have heard how some Democrats running for the county legislature want to reduce the size of the 29-member board. Some have called for 21 members, some want to go down to 15.

It’s just a political stunt, said Wayne Zyra, the county legislative president and a member of the Republican majority. He told Jim Goodman of the Democrat and Chronicle that people want small districts because "the people I represent want to be close to their representatives."

But wait a minute: Wouldn’t a smaller legislature be a streamlined legislature? And aren’t Republicans into reducing government, making it more efficient?

In fact, don’t Republicans like to say that they want to run government like a business? Didn’t George W. Bush call himself the first C.E.O president when he was first seeking that office? Didn’t New York City Republicans embrace Mike Bloomberg, a business tycoon? Just last week, didn’t State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, when backing the possible Republican candidacy of Tom Golisano for governor, say about Tommy G. that "he’s a real chief executive and what we need is a real chief executive"?

Well what has been business being doing in recent years. Merging. Downsizing. Scaling back and getting leaner to compete.

Should Mr. Zyra ask people in his district if they would like a more efficient county legislature? Maybe an even more important question for him to ask the people in Clarkson, Hamlin and Sweden, (not just the ones on the preferred voting lists, but all homeowners) is: Do you know just who is your county legislator? Would they point to him if hadn’t prompted them in advance? Would a majority say they know? Doubtful.

You see, the Monroe County Legislature has become a tepid tool for public expression in county government. It wasn’t always this way. Wouldn’t a shake up of the staid institution make it more relevant?

Now, I’m not sure if reducing the number of county legislators is the solution, as Democrats suggest. I will say that the term limits won’t be the answer. That legislation, which is taking affect this election year, will probably make it only weaker. How will brand new members argue against the entrenched staffers working full-time in the Maggie Brooks administration?

But the point is that doing something to try and shake up the lawmaking arm of the government would be for the good. Doing nothing only deprives people of a way to move the levers of the county government machinery.

People may become closer to their representatives if they were working on more substantive policy. Right now there is scant little connection between that branch of county government and the people they serve.

© Copyright 2005, WXXI

Magic Carpet Ride

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We New Yorkers love our transients. Many people from around the country – and around the world – still put faith in that musical line – "if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere." They come for fame, for fortune, for acclaim. And we don’t begrudge those who come after us.

Politicians are no exception. And now William Weld wants to take advantage of that Empire State acceptance.

Weld’s political bones were made in Massachusetts. He led that state’s government just after Michael Dukakis and left only after a failed attempt to unseat Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

In 2000, a few years after he was rebuffed by the Senate to be ambassador to Mexico by the right-wing of the Republican Party, the ex-Republican governor of Massachusetts moved back to New York.

Five years later, he wants a public life renewed. Only in the Empire State.

And why not.

Bobby Kennedy showed him the way. The Massachusetts resident moved to New York State in 1964 after his brother’s assassination and began his own elected political career. He wasn’t going to seek the Massachusetts Senate seat held by his brother, Ted. So he took up residence in New York and challenged the incumbent Republican Kenneth Keating.

Keating said he would happy to furnish Kennedy with a New York road map and bashed the interloper for his newcomer status at every turn. Keating initially whittled away at Kennedy’s star power – but in a year when Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater, Kennedy would not be beaten.

Twenty-six years later the stakes were raised higher. The First Lady of the United States, a woman who lived in the White House, took up residence in Westchester County, New York and announced she was running for the U.S. Senate.

But I guess by then the carpet bagging status meant so much less that Hillary Clinton could walk on the stage of an Albany statehouse reporters’ variety/satire show carrying a carpetbag – as a joke.

My guess is that Weld probably doesn’t give the charge "carpetbagger" a second thought.

Of course, it’s not just New York City cosmopolitans who must accept an outsider. Upstate New York has to get behind such a candidate too. But upstaters didn’t seem to mind that Hillary hardly opened up her moving boxes before her run.

Just listen to the New York State Republican Chairman Steve Minarik – a Rochester guy – talk about Weld and the potential for a carpetbagger label: "Carpetbagger would be a legitimate issue. But Bill weld was born and raised in New York. He lived the first 26 years of his life in New York…He understands what we believe in and what we need is a leader right now in New York State."

And so another magic carpet ride in New York electoral politics is underway.

© Copyright 2005, WXXI

No Coronation

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Howard Dean, the former presidential hopeful, has had to slug it out to become the chairman of the national Democratic Party. Check the notebook

It appeared as though Rick Dollinger, the former state senator, would have no such problem. He was the only local Democrat willing to take over as the new chair of the county Democratic Committee.

That was until Tom Wega appeared. Wega doesn’t have the lofty credentials of a Dollinger – he has been a Democratic town leader in Pittsford, he ran for the county legislature unsuccessfully.

He also is a Deaniac – an active member of dfaRochester (part of the Democracy for America movement, which sprang up after Dean’s withdrawal from the presidential race).

Wega initially figured he would be the ONLY candidate for the job. And he said that he respects Dollinger and interim chairman Jim Vogel (who will also put his name into consideration for the permanent post).

Wega said he knows that Dollinger will be the favorite for the seat. But he’s going to keep his name in the mix because he’s following a Dean dictate – let no race go unchallenged.

In a letter to Democrats in the committee, Wega wrote: “We must remake our party into one that wins elections at all levels. Before we can win the presidency and Congress we must win state, county, town, school board and village elections and before we win town halls, we in the rank and file must win back our party”

It’s not the equivalent of a scream after the Iowa caucuses.

But it is a polite shout by one local Democrat that the appointment of a new chair not be a coronation.

 

Sales Tax, Take Two

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An earlier edition of this column focused on the allure of the sales tax for cash-strapped counties. More specifically it pointed to Erie County, where the county legislature had approved a penny hike in the sales tax and then got approval for the increase by the state.

Well then Erie County lawmakers took the unusual step of backing off. One of the legislators who approved the notion of sending the sales tax increase to the state legislature backed off giving final approval in order to get more concessions from the county administration on cutbacks.

But Erie County’s hesitancy doesn’t negate the obvious point – counties in need of revenue will go any place except the property tax to get it.

And the sales tax is the most palatable place to go.

And while Erie County’s schizophrenia with their sales tax hike is odd, there is no such problem in our area.
Monroe County has already paved the way for sales tax increases. While our neighbors to west wrestle with issues like sales tax sharing, Monroe County has the Morin-Ryan agreement from the 1980s and the Doyle-Johnson update from the 1990s that creates a plan for sharing the money among municipalities.

And former County Executive Bob King proved back in the early 1990s that a sales tax increase is a much easier sell to voters in an upstate community than a property tax hike.

So the only question is whether other counties in upstate New York are in the same boat as Erie.
Well maybe the Erie County vessel is taking on water at a greater rate.

But the crashing waves of ever-increasing Medicaid costs are flooding the boats of other counties.

Just look at Genesee County where the Buffalo News reported that legislators donned red baseball caps in an effort to plead for a cap on Medicaid costs being passed down from the state.

The sales tax is a last refuge for counties.