The Challenge of Campaign-Finance Reform

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Talks on reforming New York’s campaign-finance system recently fell apart in Albany. No surprise there. Of all the possible government reforms, campaign finance could be the most unpopular among legislators, perhaps running even with nonpartisan redistricting.

The reason is obvious. These two powers – to raise buckets of campaign cash and to draw the borders of legislative districts (including those you want and excluding those you don’t) – form the heart of incumbent power in the Legislature. Getting them voted into law by those very same incumbents will be a neat trick.

Yet Gov. Eliot Spitzer promised during last year’s campaign to work to fundamentally change how state government works, and in the past week he has made a slew of proposals following through on that pledge. Not only did he propose to lower various types of campaign contribution limits, he also proposed legislation to overhaul the court system and to revamp election law, including, yes, establishing a redistricting process independent of (though influenced by) the Legislature. (He also introduced a bill to allow marriage between gay people – it was a busy week.)

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New York’s Aging in Place

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New York is an old state. That gives us a proud history to reflect upon, from the rising of the New York City as the world’s financial capital to the birth of social reforms and protections for workers to the construction of public engineering marvels like the Erie Canal.

It also gives us a woefully outdated structure of government that has proven incredibly resilient despite many criticisms and calls for change.

The latest evidence comes from a Center for Governmental Research project — prepared for the Long Island Index — comparing the structure and cost of government on Long Island to that of another densely populated suburban area: Northern Virginia.

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NYS Budget: On Time, but at a Cost

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A couple months ago, I suggested that New York might be better off with a late budget than an on-time one. I wondered if our new governor, Eliot Spitzer, might conclude that winning concessions on the budget might be worth the political cost of breaking the two-year record of “timely” budgets.

But for the past week, Spitzer and legislators have scrambled to negotiate, print bills and pass the budget on time. The result is a relatively on-time budget (one day late) that raises spending 7 percent.

Spitzer and legislators added $1 billion to Spitzer’s proposed budget despite having agreed earlier that there was only $575 million in revenue to add to the budget. The budget total is still a moving target, even though the bills have been passed, but in the neighborhood of $121 billion.

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New York’s Heated Health-Care Battle

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In the increasingly heated battle over health-care funding in Albany, health interests are using plays from their traditional playbook, while Gov. Eliot Spitzer is employing some new and unusual tactics.

Hospital lobby groups brought some 3,000 workers to the Capitol to protest more than $1 billion in spending reductions proposed by Spitzer in the state budget due April 1. The hospital groups and powerful health-care unions have also paid for television ads criticizing Spitzer’s plan, saying it’s all about cuts and not true reform of the health-care system, as Spitzer has argued.

These tactics have proved successful in the past. Similar ads and shows of force persuaded the Legislature in years past to reject health cuts suggested by former Gov. George Pataki.

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Meaningful Accomplishments in Albany

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After weeks of battling, Gov. Eliot Spitzer and legislative leaders were able to make nice and recently announce compromises on two significant issues: reform of the workers compensation system and confinement of sex offenders beyond their prison terms.

It’s encouraging to see some signs of good will among the state’s top leaders — they’re going to need it. The state budget is due in less than a month, and the issues remain contentious.

The agreement to overhaul workers comp was a big victory for the business community, which has been complaining about the high cost of covering workers for years. The average cost of a claim in New York in 2002 was more than $16,000, compared to a national average closer to $9,000. Higher claim costs drove up the price of insurance to employers, and some New York businesses ended up paying many times what they would pay in other states to cover their workers. Read more »

Fighting for a Fair Share

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Rochester leaders recently announced that for a second year in a row they will make a major push for more state aid to the city, the “Fair Share” campaign.

The name comes from the campaign’s central concept: that Rochester should be helped on an equitable basis to the two cities that are most like it, Buffalo and Syracuse.

As it stands, Rochester is not. This year, Rochester received about $339 in state aid for every resident, compared to $446 for Syracuse and $509 for Buffalo, by my calculations using 2005 population estimates from the Census.

You might wonder how it got so out of whack. The conventional wisdom is that in years past Rochester was not as aggressive in going after state funding as were its neighbors. The theory around here used to be, with international corporations like Eastman Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb in our midst, we could take care of ourselves pretty well and didn’t need to beg and scrape for state dollars. Also, Buffalo got big increases over the last 10 years as its local economy tanked. Read more »

Spitzer vs. the Legislature

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What’s the most effective way to change a dysfunctional Legislature?

Former state Sen. Seymour Lachman visited the Center for Governmental Research last week as part of a visit to Rochester to promote his book “Three Men in a Room” about Albany gridlock and corruption. Lachman’s view is that any governor hoping to make any substantive change has to be willing to fight lawmakers relentlessly and on every front.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer appears to agree. He has been forcefully criticizing lawmakers for defying his wishes, not sticking to a deal they made with him and naming one of their own as the state’s next comptroller.

He accused legislators of a “stunning lack of integrity” and “gross legislative self-indulgence.” He referred to the next comptroller, a man he’ll have to work with for the next four years (count ‘em) as “thoroughly and totally unqualified for the job.” Read more »

Something for Everyone

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Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposed state budget contains something for everyone.

Something to dislike, that is.

So, if you don’t like the way things have been done recently in Albany, maybe you’ll like this budget. It reminds me of my days as a newspaper reporter, when we would say that if you angered all your sources equally, you’d probably done a pretty good job on the article.

The health-care industry disagrees with the $1.3 billion Spitzer proposed in spending cuts. Businesses don’t like the $450 million in closing tax loopholes that will mean paying more to the state. Fiscal conservatives are sure to dislike the 6 percent overall spending increase the budget calls for – especially since they know the Legislature will fight hard to spend even more. Read more »

The Two Kinds of Pork

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In New York, pork-barrel spending comes two ways: as cash or capital. Lawmakers fund cash pork out of current revenue and pay for capital pork out of borrowed funds. One kind of pork has gotten a lot of attention, while the other kind has been largely ignored — even though the state spends a lot more of your money this way.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer and legislative leaders have recently promised to disclose the cash “member items” in the state budget. Basic information about each grant will be listed, as opposed to the current practice of including a lump sum in the budget and figuring out the details of who gets what later.

The sum has totaled $200 million a year in recent years, doled out to Little Leagues, nonprofit organizations, community groups, health organizations – many sympathetic causes. The criticism of good-government groups has always been that while the recipients may be worthy, the process is tainted because it happens behind closed doors, without any public accounting for who wins and who loses and why. Also, majority party members in each house (Democrats in the Assembly and Republicans in the Senate) get far more to spend.

But this is chicken feed compared to what happens on the borrowed side—what we’ve called “capital pork.”

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Property Taxes – What Can be Done?

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Last week’s column drew a big response. Not that any of the reporters or citizens who contacted me were surprised to learn that Upstate New York has remarkably high property taxes. But they were startled to learn that we claim 9 of the top 10 counties in the nation in property taxes as a percentage of home value.

If we agree that this is a problem (and, of course, some don’t, seeing high taxes as the fair price for a high level of government services), the question becomes, what can we do about it?

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