Looking through the glass darkly; will this be a year of reform?

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Eye from Albany
January 2006

Looking through the glass darkly; will this be a year of reform?
by Paul M. Bray

Trying to predict the course of state government in 2006 is like looking through the glass darkly. There are so many wild cards with a lame duck Governor and state elections with the Republican majority in the State Senate hanging by a thread. The exodus from the Pataki Administration, not known otherwise for being talent rich, has begun in earnest. This includes reshuffling as some office holders find a place on entities like the Tax Appeals Commission which have terms going well beyond January 2007 when Pataki will be history.

The Senate Republicans are in a precarious position with aging incumbents as Democratic voter registration increases, traditional Republican areas on Long Island and upstate elect Democrats to local office and the top of the ballot will have popular Democratic candidates for Governor and US Senate: Eliot Spitzer and Hillary Clinton, respectively. The State Senate Republican’s fight for survival is further complicated by deep antagonism between Governor George and Senate Majority Leader Joe, both Republicans.

I could go on about how Candidate Eliot probably would like to see the Republicans keep control of the Senate so he doesn’t have to face two Democratic houses in the legislature and Senator Joe probably would be happy to see candidates Eliot and Hillary have a cake walk in the election so that some Democratic voters will stay home.

And finally, it is reported that the State coffers have $2 billion that will look awfully like walking around money to legislators facing election.

So, you can see what a mess there is for a prognosticator to sort through. In the light of these circumstances I wanted to write a January Eye that would predict what was likely to happen during the 2006 legislative session and so far it looks like my first instinct was way off base. I thought the reform focus of 2005 would morph over into 2006.

First, I saw Candidate Eliot start off his campaign on a theme of reform. He told a crowded audience at Rockefeller Institute in Albany that he was going to put an end to pay to play in State government (something that has been attempted in New Jersey and Connecticut, but hasn’t even visibly gotten on the reformers agenda in Albany) and gerrymandering of legislative districts by the legislature. Spitzer is a politician who speaks in a way that makes you listen and he is joined by a chorus of reformers like the Brennan Center at NYU. It appeared to me that the call for reform would be remain loud and clear.

Second, there is the fact that the legislature’s attempt at reforming the state budget process was defeated at the polls in November. Wouldn’t this result in pressure to come up with another attempt this year, I thought? Legislators heard the discontent with business as usual in Albany when they last went before the voters in 2004 and I believed the Senate particularly would not like to have to rely on the 2005 reforms next November. I didn’t think that getting some control over public authorities, the first on-time budget in two decades, and a series of other reforms made last year including elimination of empty seat voting, procurement lobbying reform and strengthening the freedom of information law would be enough.

In fact, I was afraid that too much attention to reform would be a costly diversion from addressing substantive public issues like education (you know, that court order that is being ignored), the upstate economy or what is left of it, energy, environment, transportation, meeting the needs of an aging population, Medicaid, public safety, urban disinvestments, meeting countless social needs and the list goes on. Did you know, for example, that two jobs are lost in the State for each retiree that leaves to live in another state? As the vanguard of the baby boomers approach retirement, are we doing enough to keep them in New York? I don’t think so.

Ah, but it looks like I was wrong as a headline in the Albany Times Union declared: “Lawmakers worry Pataki has forgotten reform”. Senate Minority Leader David Paterson is quoted as saying, “My fear is that the Albany response to the demand for reform would be to pass one on-time budget and make legislators sit in their seats to vote. I never thought the Albany institutions really believed in reform.”

Pataki’s State of the State ignored reform as it harkened back to the standard messages of cutting taxes, locking them up and throwing away the key this time for sexually violent predators and university-based research and high tech development. The only real break through in the speech was a yet to be fully defined effort to have renewable energy sources like ethanol available at the gas pumps in New York State. (Next month the Eye will address why this misses the boat when it comes to creating a transportation system that not only frees us from “expensive, terror-promoting foreign oil”, but also frees us from sprawl and highway congestion.)

As I said, I started out concerned that attention to reform would divert attention from serious substantive issues. Now I am suspect both reform and serious substance will be missing in action this year. But one never knows especially in an election year when fear of an impending November election may be the greatest or only catalyst for doing well.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental lawfirm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com.