Tuesday, May 22, 2007

How The Republican Pataki Administration Ruled Harshly and Ruined New York's Future

Seymour Lachman spent five years as a State Senator in New York. He observed how, as he describes in the title of his book, three people-the Governor, the Assembly Speaker, and the Senate Majority Leader, have effectively controlled New York legislative politics. All major legislative decisions were made during discussions and compromises between these three leaders. These three leaders essentially decide which bills will become law. New York Governors traditionally are politically strong and legislators seldom challenge their final decisions. From 1870 to 1976, the legislature never overrode a Gubernatorial veto. The author notes that New York some years had the lowest percentage of bills introduced that became law, which was as low as 4% in 2002. Rank and file legislators were mostly pawns expected to either ratify the decisions these three leaders made or challenge them under risk of political penalty or ostracism.

It is the author’s personal observation that New York legislators enjoy the perks of office yet their offices have relatively little real political power compared to these three leaders. These leaders maintain their political power in New York by distributing campaign funds and maneuvering redistricting in seeing that those who follow their political lead are elected. (It should be noted that this book was written of the Republican George Pataki Administration. A legislator described in this book as more reform minded has since been elected Lieutenant Governor.)

Legislative incumbents are usually reelected, according to the author. Those who follow the will of their leadership are provided districts through redistricting in which they are likely to be reelected. As the author was told when he arrived to serve the legislature, he could either follow his leadership “and rise to the top, or be an independent who votes on principle, and sink to the bottom.”

One method that this New York leadership uses to control the outcome of legislative votes is through manipulating proxy voting. The leaders get the proxies from the legislators and the leaders then decide how these legislators will be recorded as voting. Thus, this proxy voting has at times left legislators on record as opposing even their interests. The author noted times when even independent minded legislators would either give up and follow their leaders or give their leaders a proxy and wind up voting against their true positions on issues.

This process does not operate smoothly, which is ironic for a process that so concentrates power. The three political powers often disagree on major budget items. The New York legislature is notorious for almost never passing a budget before a new fiscal year has begun. In fact, 2004 marked the 20th consecutive year the New York legislature was unable to reach a budget agreement by the end of the current fiscal year deadline.

The New York legislative process was not open for general participation by other legislators, according to the author. Legislators are not expected to attend committee meetings as committee chairs decide which bills to move and then use proxies to vote them out of committee. New York legislators often have little knowledge on what proposals will do if enacted before they have to vote on them. Once New York legislators were given a 541 page proposal on spending $18 billion and they voted to pass it the following day. Legislators in New York don’t need to be present in order to vote during legislative sessions, again just leaving their proxies with their leadership.

Legislators in New York were usually provided with $150,000 to personally distribute to their favored projects within their districts. These funds though were not given to retiring legislators. In addition, legislators who did not face tough reelection fights were often expected to yield some of their funds to legislators of the same political party who were engaged in tough reelection fights.

The book notes a study conducted by the Brennan Center confirmed what the author contends are legislative problems that are unique to the New York legislature. The legislative committee process is one that in other states more actively reviews and amends legislative proposals. The New York legislative committee process is more controlled by committee chairs and less open to participation by committee members.

The problem, the author fear, is that this unchecked authority may be creating long term economic problems for New York. Public spending projects have routinely been moved off budget into projects controlled by public authorities. While the total count is in doubt, the author was able to find 753 public authorities in New York. In seven years, the amount of public debt taken on by these authorities has increased from $4 billion to $70 billion. Many of these authorities do not use proper accounting methods. The author warns this may someday be a major future budgetary crisis for New York government.

This book serves as an interesting comparison study for other legislators to examine as well as an important warning to New Yorkers.


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