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.”

All this, at the same time that he is asking the Legislature to approve sweeping and controversial changes to the state’s $120.6 billion budget – changes that go to the very heart of how New York operates and how it pays for its top two financial priorities, health care and education.

No one knows better than Spitzer the battles that lie ahead. He’s proposed $1.3 billion in cuts to health-care spending, including freezing Medicaid reimbursement rates to hospitals and nursing homes. Gov. George Pataki wanted to save money that way too, and he got beat back by the Legislature every time he proposed it.

A bigger bombshell was Spitzer’s proposal to “break shares” on school funding. Spitzer wants an entirely new school-funding formula, which almost everyone agrees is needed. What the formula would do, he says, is drive money to the school districts that most need it. In the process, the state would abandon its usual political deal-making that ensures that each of the state’s major regions (New York City, Long Island, Upstate) receive an increase in school aid proportional to its share of the school population.

This may not sound like a big deal, and many education advocacy groups and policy analysts think Spitzer’s is a good change. But it’s heresy to some in the Legislature, especially Senate Republicans, and even more especially, the ones from Long Island, who will fight tooth and nail to maintain what they consider proportional and fair funding for schools (wealthy or poor) in their areas.

Spitzer is taking his budget fight into the homes of regular New Yorkers, literally. He visited families in the Syracuse and Binghamton areas this week to listen to their concerns and describe his budget proposals (and get media coverage in the process). He plans to visit Westchester County, Rochester and Buffalo next week.

The governor is clearly seeking to go above the legislators’ heads to the boss of all them: the public (at least in theory). If Spitzer can make a convincing case and build public support for the budget, lawmakers will have no choice but to give Spitzer most of what he wants, so the theory goes.

But recent history has shown the Legislature doesn’t mind being unpopular, at least for a little while and as long as there’s not an election looming. Legislators have rejected for years government reforms that have public support (nonpartisan redistricting and disclosure of pork-barrel spending, for example) and they have raised taxes when necessary to maintain funding for schools and health care (popular with some voters, unpopular with others).

Furthermore, when attacked, New York lawmakers tend to close ranks and protect their own. That’s what we saw in the comptroller fight. Spitzer had insisted the new comptroller be qualified, and to him, that meant the person should come from outside the Legislature. Legislators took an immediate and personal affront to this. They agreed to a deal with Spitzer allowing an outside panel to vet candidates and produce a short list, but they bucked the deal when no legislator appeared on the list.

When the Assembly and the Senate unite against the governor, they can be a powerful and largely unstoppable force. In 2003, when they joined forces to override Pataki budget vetoes and add $2 billion in education and health-care spending, legislators were fairly giddy over their own show of power.

Spitzer’s fight over the comptroller post has largely been with the Assembly, but he has not made a friend out of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno either, having campaigned against Bruno’s candidate for a vacant Senate seat on Long Island and helped a Democrat take over. So it’s safe to say Spitzer has few friends in the Legislature at the moment.

New Yorkers fed up with the Capitol didn’t elect the new governor to make friends. The question will be whether Spitzer needs to throw in some proverbial carrots along with the stick as he works for legislative changes in New York.