Transition Time in Albany

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Eye from Albany
November 2006

Transition Time in Albany
by Paul M. Bray

It is transition time in Albany and the expectation is for big changes. As I am writing this column before Election Day, it is still candidate and heir apparent Eliot Spitzer who is saying “On Day One, Everything Changes”. OiNK Comedy Troupe has responded with due cynicism by saying: “Everything, that is, except politicians making grandiose promises that can’t possibly be kept”. Will hope or cynicism triumph?

The Division of the Budget and just about every other agency and interest group is writing transition memos. Jockeying is going on for appointed positions. Gossip is plentiful. Will a 29 year-old woman actually be appointed State Commissioner of Transportation? The New York Times is already writing about Spitzer assembling his cabinet.

Transitions between state administrations are relatively rare in Albany. Governors like Rockefeller, Cuomo and Pataki tend to hang around for 12 or more years, yet there is something about the pattern of transition in the genes of those in Albany.

Some things never change. Outgoing governors tell us things have never been better. Governor Pataki just announced the state will end the fiscal year with a $1.1 billion dollar surplus. Incoming governors tell us the state’s fiscal health has never been worst. In response to Pataki, the Times Union reported: “Spitzer spokeswoman Christine Anderson pointed out that the state still faces projected shortfalls next year ($2.4 billion) and the year after ($4.5 billion). And she added that those figures don’t take into account a potential court-ordered multi-billion-dollar increase in state aid to schools.”

Some, but not all incoming governors, take the opportunity at the earliest stages of their administration to set their defining goals. Pataki’s goals were relatively simple: enact a death penalty and cut taxes. He was relatively unknown in 1994 so expectations were not very high.

Spitzer will come into office loaded with expectations. How will he define is real goals in his first State of the State Address?

As the fearless “Sheriff of Wall Street”, he is expected to reform the state’s political system by leading the way to campaign finance reform and an end to political gerrymandering. At the same time he will be expected to cut property taxes, get control of the mountain of state debt, improve access to health care, reform Medicaid and expand education financing while also creating jobs upstate and spurring development at ground zero and in the rest of New York City. Not frequently mentioned is the growing backlog of multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects like the Tappan Zee Bridge that will have to be financed and a state energy system in dire need of reform and rebuilding.

If you are not out of breath yet, think about the implications of a George Herbert Bush “no new taxes pledge”. Spitzer in his September debate with John Faso declared: “There will be no tax increase in a Spitzer administration.” The response from the pages of the New York Times was “the notion that Mr. Spitzer can sharply increase financing to New York schools and broadly increase health care coverage and cut taxes at the same time, in the face of a multibillion dollar deficit, seems like a tall order, to say the least.”

If nothing else, this transition looks like it will be interesting and there are some very promising things to anticipate. Spitzer is a doer. While he has been criticized for an off-putting way of wanting to be “the smartest person in the room”, he clearly demonstrated as Attorney General that he likes to work with very smart people.

Rockefeller was the last governor who clearly wanted to attract the best and the brightest to work in his administration. As a result, Rockefeller was able to leave a legacy that included building a state university system, cleaning the rivers of the state and bringing the state’s environmental programs into the post-Earth Day era by creating the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency.

How Spitzer handles the state legislature will be a determining factor in his success or failure. Since the 1970s the two houses of the state legislature have become stand-alone power centers. Although detested by some, one should not ignore the fact that the senate and assembly each have strong political constituencies they serve. Pataki began by attacking the assembly and legislators generally with childish ploys like withholding their pay when the budget was late. He has his knife out. In the end, Pataki played along with legislative constituencies and the legislative houses held their ground. Carey and Cuomo were often rolled by the legislature.

What will Spitzer do? While it hard to image a collegial relationship between the governor and legislature particular with issues like reform that cut to heart of legislative power, Spitzer is going to have to pick his fights with the legislature, if that is what he does, very carefully.

What comes to my mind is the idea of “tough love” whereby a governor clearly sets a high standard on some reform issues (what may be painful for some parties) while going an extra mile to be collegial and collaborative on other state business.

Spitzer has an opportunity for doing things another way. Stay tuned.

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