Let’s all hope for a late state budget

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer took office last week with an impressive combination of lofty rhetoric, decisive action and ambitious plans – not to mention more than a few jabs at the Legislature and his predecessor.

Here’s a quick summary:

He declared that we would become “One New York” — no longer divided by political and geographical differences. In the very first press release of his administration, Spitzer announced a 15-point plan to turn around the Upstate economy. He vowed to end the culture of corruption in Albany lawmaking and signed executive orders hours after his inauguration banning gifts from lobbyists to employees of the executive branch and ending distasteful practices such as the personal use of state cars and nepotism.

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September Musings

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

So much to get to, so little space.

And because I have the freedom of this digital page – I’ll go ahead and let the random thoughts flow for a bit.

Let’s start with: And Then There Was One… I Mean Two

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Duty Calls … Again

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

On September 9, 2001, while working in my former life as a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle, I wrote a small story headlined “Primary Turnout Likely to be Low.”

In the newspaper business, this kind of story is called an advance piece. The story quoted election officials hoping that 20 percent of registered primary voters might show up to a primary that would be held two days later.

But, of course, it wasn’t held. Because the world had changed. Or so we thought.

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Reform on the Ropes

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

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.

Will The Watchdog Stay Awake?

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

It’s hard to find a silver lining in the dark cloud that is the latest Monroe County Water Authority revelation.

The tale of how former water authority managers were enriched through unethical policies is dismal. The names involved – including former County Legislator and County Republican Chairman John Stanwix – are depressing.

It points up, once again, how lax is the general oversight of public authorities across New York. – from the lack of press scrutiny to the gaps in state government regulatory policy when it comes to these authorities. (Check CGR’s Erika Rosenberg for the best reading of what the state government can do when it comes to authorities.

But maybe we can find a little comfort here – the wisdom of the New York voter to apply an electoral check and balance to state government. I’m talking about the propensity of Empire State voters over the years to split the ticket and elect a state comptroller from the opposite political party than that of the state governor. This may very well have led to light being shed on the shenanigans of this local public authority – and the flaws in the state’s public authority system as well.

But the question is whether that check and balance will disappear after the 2006 election.

Look back over state government’s history and you’ll find that governors Nelson Rockefeller, Mario Cuomo and George Pataki all dealt with state comptrollers from the competing political party. Republican

Rockefeller had Democrat Arthur Levitt Sr. and Democrat Cuomo had GOPer Ned Regan (except for about 8 months of his 12-year tenure). Admittedly those early relationships had a more collegial feel, despite the party split. Regan early on was even criticized for being too chummy with the Cuomo administration. But as the years went on Regan dug in to Cuomo, criticizing him for relying on one-shot revenue gimmicks to balance the state budget and against Cuomo’s push for an environmental bond act in 1990.

Things became more charged when Pataki took the governor’s mansion and Democrat H. Carl McCall took over as comptroller. From the start Pataki and McCall were at odds with Pataki telling the New York Times in 1996 that McCall was “is an ambitious politician looking for an office and unfortunately, that makes (working together) very difficult.”

McCall fought Pataki on repealing the commuter tax in New York City and tried to curb the state’s ability to borrow funds. He charged Pataki with making policy for the state’s higher education system that was haphazard and politically influenced. In the end McCall did run against Pataki, failing to unseat him.

Enter Alan Hevesi, who has taken the comptroller’s oversight function to a new level. Locally he’s issued a series of tough reports on financial mismanagement – from the failure of the fast ferry project to the financial struggles of Gates.

And, of course, there was his office’s report on the county water authority. This is just part of a much larger effort by Hevesi to criticize the state’s public authority system. In 2004, Hevesi issued a report on authorities with the subtitle – “Reining in New York’s Secret Government.”

Hevesi has put the most sustained pressure on the reform of public authorities, a system ultimately controlled by the governor.

The worry is that Democrat Hevesi will ease up in 2007 should Democrat Eliot Spitzer take the governor’s mansion as most everyone expects.

Hevesi has what amounts to a long-shot opponent in Saratoga County Treasurer Christopher Callaghan. The challenger has tried to pin on Hevesi the charge that he weighs every audit with a political scale. He says he wants to return the comptroller’s office to what he called the more professional days of Levitt and Regan.

The Hevesi campaign has countered that he has already shown a propensity to criticize both Democrats and Republicans with his audits (that includes Monroe County where Democratic mayor Bill Johnson caught Hevesi flak just as Stanwix and Gates Supervisor Ralph Esposito did).

But the ultimate question remains: Will Hevesi be just as hard-nosed with a potential Democratic Governor Spitzer as he has been with a Republican Gov. Pataki?

There’s a question worth asking prior to November 7th.

Court Appointments Aplenty

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

Before August ends, Lame Duck George Pataki could give one more loud quack before waddling out of the Albany pond.

The governor must either reappoint Judge George Bundy Smith to the state Court of Appeals or replace him. This is New York State’s highest court. Smith is an appointee of long-ago Democratic governor Mario Cuomo. So Republican Pataki could leave a little more of a conservative legacy with the court appointment if he wants.

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Class in Session

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

November 7th – Election Day – winds up being the big test for candidates.

It’s also the final grade for you – the voter. So let’s take a little time to brush up on our lessons so that we get a passing mark.

Today class, the focus is taxes. Specifically, local taxes and how the state should involve itself in reducing those taxes. Candidates are making a big deal about this. You’ve seen Eliot Spitzer – in extreme close-up on his commercials – tell you how high local property taxes are pushing people out of New York. John Faso and Tom Suozzi also know that the property tax issue plays in Elmira and Hempstead and Orchard Park.

So let’s look at options the state could use to drive down the local tax burden.

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More Than One Hour

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

When the two men who want the Democratic nod for governor only hold a single debate, much is called for from that one event.

Organizers and candidates must keep in mind issues of importance from around the state – and some that are important to those in regions of the state. Those concerns vary not just across the perceived Upstate-Downstate divide, but even from region to region as a poll conduct by my organization, the Center for Governmental Research, and the Marist Institute showed. Take a look again at the New York Matters poll for a better understanding.

But in all honesty, having Upstate concerns mentioned, let alone discussed in detail, was too much to expect in an hour.

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Local Jails, The Money Pits?

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

New Yorkers who complain about the state’s propensity to push cost down to local property tax bills often talk about schools or Medicaid.

Yet when it comes to passing down the buck, there are other issues that get ignored or just aren’t widely understood.

One of them: The cost of county jails.

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Swing Away

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

In baseball parlance it’s known as the “meatball”… the “cream puff”… the “fat pitch”.

It’s the ball thrown by the pitcher with no real speed, no deception. It’s a batter’s dream – the very hittable pitch.

I think of the “meatball” when I think about the legal ruling in New York that compels the state to cough up billions of dollars for equitable education in New York City.

This legal decision is a “cream puff” of an issue during this governor’s race. The courts have indirectly served up this “fat pitch” for you… the voter. The public and the press ought to bat this ball right at the gubernatorial candidates and make them field it, time and time again.

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