What is going on in Albany?

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Eye from Albany
October 2001

What is going on in Albany?
By Paul M. Bray

As the summer of 2001 drags on in Albany, the impasse of our state government that enigma inside a puzzle is deeper than ever. The legislature with its Republican controlled Senate and Democratic controlled Assembly has adopted a budget satisfying no one including our Republican Governor. Governor Pataki is challenging it in court. The three men are back in a room talking but there are little signs of compromise leading to agreement between the legislature and the Governor. September 15th looms with dire consequences to many social service agencies and others if a supplemental budget isn’t enacted by that date. The New York Times calls it “High Noon in Albany”.

What is going on in Albany? What is the problem that is only the latest manifestation of two decades of inability to do a timely budget. Is it the personalities of the leaders that is the problem? Certainly the chemistry between Governor Pataki, Majority Leader Bruno and Speaker Silver has not been great. It is hard to image any two let alone all three of these strong personalities kicking up their heals with a beer and joking about the foibles and follies of life in Albany. There was a time when that could happen amongst Albany leaders.

Yet, I doubt if the next election brought a change in Governor and legislative leaders that the era of budget impasse would end. It might even be worst if one can assume that the current leaders have developed some grudging respect for each other based on what has been years of hand-to-hand conflict. The next leaders will have allot of testing out of each other to do to get where these guys are.

Many including the Times see the latest battle as an ongoing institutional conflict between the Governor and the legislature. The American form of government with its separation of power sets the stage for conflict between the two most active branches, the executive and legislative. But there is something about New York State that takes this inherent conflict and turns into a nasty grudge match.

Over the years it has been noticeable when a former legislator becomes governor, like Hugh Carey or George Pataki, there is a palpable distain for the legislature. Mr. Pataki has taken this distain up a couple of notches by fueling a power struggle with the legislature over the budget process. It has characterized his governorship. He has sought to control legislative spending, popular with all who are not the beneficiaries of the particular legislative items, and to rewrite laws in the budget in a way that circumvents the normal legislative process. Now with law suits flying both ways between Speaker Silver and Governor Pataki it looks like it will be the courts that will have to settle the high stakes battle of the branches over budget-making power.

Is it partisan politics that is the root cause of Albany’s problems? The architecture of partisan politics has changed the most of any other part of the Albany equation over the last few decades. We still have basically a two party system with a couple of minor parties that sometimes can shift the balance. But these two parties have each fragmented. They no longer are organized in a linear fashion from the ward level to, for the party in power, the Governor as party leader.

This was all to evident in the 1980s with a newspaper headline declaring that Governor Cuomo would work for Democratic State Senate candidates in the next election. It was news that the leader of the Democratic Party was going to support the candidates in his own party! In the end, whatever support he offered Senate Democratic candidates turned out to be very little and revealed his real motivation in favor of keeping the State Senate in Republican hands. That way he would not have to deal with a legislature dangerously for him under complete Democratic control. that could put him on the spot over legislation he would not want to approve. Even if one party controlled both houses of the legislature and the governorship, there would still be a tug of war between the legislature and the governor because each branch of government has different needs when it comes to gaining reelection.

In fact, the Democrats and Republicans in each house of the legislature have organized themselves as self-contained political organizations to maintain, if they are in the majority, or to gain, if not, power. Who ever is governor basically operates a me first political operation. Neither political party has a state organization with much sway over its member politicians. Little wonder under these feudal like conditions that what goes on between the legislature and the governor seems to be less about governance and more a turf war.

Even at the local level political organization is weak. Here in Albany, for example, Democratic Mayor Gerald Jennings has encouraged and supported his own insurgent candidates in Common Council primaries again candidates from his own party selected the ward level. Party loyalty increasingly means little, personal power means everything.

Without the order and discipline associated with the traditional political party organizations, we are in the midst of a feudal period that makes little sense to the general public.

If the leaders could lighten up, try a truce in the institutional wars and get back to putting the humpty, dumpty of the political parties back together, we could move beyond conflict and impasse to consensus building and good governance. Don’t hold your breadth for any of this to happen.