Thinking out of the box; restructuring government

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Eye from Albany
May 2005

Thinking out of the box; restructuring government
by Paul M. Bray

When someone recently told me I should do more thinking out of the box in the Eye Column, I filed it away in the back of my mind. Soon thereafter a few other people said the same thing about the need for more thinking out of the box and it got me thinking.

Perhaps this yearning for out of the box thinking is a reaction to the tepid actions in Albany during this year of “reform”. Yes, the budget was on time (sort of) and the legislators are more frequently in their seats. Issues like lobbying and procurement reforms are hot topics in Albany, but fundamentally there is no real change now or even on the horizon. The tug of war between the three basic institutions of state government, the two independent legislative houses and the Governor goes on while our costly, fragmented system of local government plods on. Strategic planning or any planning is a relic of the past even though we face huge challenges to be globally economically competitive. How can we adequately organize and focus our resources without the ability to be forward looking?

There are no voices calling for real restructuring of government to meet the conditions of the 21st century? True, some have proposed a unicameral legislature and the notion of initiative and referendum does come up from time to time. Excuse me if I yawn.

Let us take a moment and think about serious structural reform of government beginning with the abolition of the executive and legislative branches, as we know them, to be replaced by devolution of authority to the logical and coherent regions or subsets of the State.

New York State is composed of regions with very different qualities and needs. New York City or the New York City metro area is itself a world level city-state sharing the same state boundaries with the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River, vast forest and agricultural lands and river corridors loaded with tech wannabes. The State has significant and coherent areas that are, respectively, urban, suburban, agricultural-rural and wild forest with representatives thereof having to be part of the feeding frenzy in the corridors of state government in Albany. Each of these areas has its own economy, culture and societal needs and the capacity to stand-alone. None with the possible exception of the New York City metro area has the ability to fully marshal its resources in a globally or even nationally competitive manner.

Now, let us imagine the State divided into four governing regions or units: New York Metro including Suffolk, Nassau, Westchester and Rockland counties, “metro-NY”; Riverstech corridor composed roughly of the counties along the Hudson River/Lake Champlain and Erie Canal, “rivers-tech-NY”; Southern Tier composed of the area west and south of rivers-tech, “ag-land-NY”; and Northern Tier including the Adirondack Park to Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, “forest-land-NY”. (Obviously, naming the regions is a work that needs a lot more attention and creativity.) This would allow each of the regions to more fully realize their own unique opportunities in a highly competitive fashion ranging from world finance in metro-NY, education and tech in river-tech-NY, recreation and forest products in forest-land-NY and agriculture in ag-land-NY.

Each of these regions would be organized with its own regional legislature and executive to govern on matters of social services, health, education, environment and economic development tailored to the needs and opportunities of its particular circumstances. Each would also be able to structure its own internal governance structure as New York City does now with its City Council and borough Presidents. It would be a significant devolution of governmental authority to four regions of the State.

Fear not, we would lose state government. State legislative authority would be vested in a representative State Council made up of the four regional executives and elected representatives based on population. The Council would set minimum statewide standards for governmental responsibilities carried out by the four regions like social services, education, environment and health and deal with State financing issues. State government would be more along the lines followed by the European Community than the current structure. Needless to say, every current stakeholder in the State would fight like hell to preserve its position and perks under the current system, so the public will for reform will have to be unequivocally strong.

This is only a concept and the devil is in the details, but global economic realities call for new structures if a once Empire State is to remain competitive. If not this concept, hopefully we can start the process of thinking our way out of the quagmire many of us feel we are in. In the meantime, I will do some thinking about how each of the four regions might prosper.

PS. As Yogi would say, Albany offers another example of de ja vu all over again with 2005 transportation bond act that looks like it will make the same error make in the 2000 transportation bond act and flop at the November election. In my 2000 Eye from Albany October 2000 column “Mystery $3.8 transportation bond act”(find it at www.Braypapers.com), I suggested that roads and transit was not enough to attract the necessary votes for approval. Voters today are sophisticated and look for more meaning enhancements for bikes, walkability and other amenities that make mobility easier, healthier and more pleasant. No, said the powers that be in Albany. Give them only asphalt and subways. No, said the voters who rejected the bond act. Again, the prospect is for a bond act without sensibility.