Albany Out of Order

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With any luck, may be back to business by the time this paper reaches readers. But no matter how these next few days unfold, the insanity of the past three weeks—which has included chamber lock-outs, dueling sessions and more finger-pointing than a 3rd-grade classroom—has only made more urgent what we already knew: New York State government needs a big-time overhaul.

As a refresher, on June 8 two rogue Senators switched parties and stripped Democrats of their thin majority. One, Hiram Monserrate, has subsequently returned to the fold, but Pedro Espada, Jr. continues to caucus with Republicans, leaving the Senate in a 31-31 deadlock. Under normal circumstances, the lieutenant governor breaks a tie. But New York’s second-in-command, David Paterson, became the state’s chief executive upon Eliot Spitzer’s resignation, and the state has no mechanism for replacement. That has left in limbo many key pieces of legislation, including mayoral control of schools and critical revenue proposals from municipalities around the state.

Given this mess, we asked a diverse group of political insiders from both parties—academics, good government advocates, former electeds and even some current office holders—what steps they think need to be taken to make our state government work better and to prevent the current situation from occurring again. There are many fine ideas on the table, and we hope that after the smoke clears and tempers subside, our leaders will consider some of the proposals noted here.

Please note: as several ideas overlapped, we did not list each suggestion from every expert.

Manfred Ohrenstein, former West Side State Senator and Democratic minority leader, founding partner of Ohrenstein and Brown, LLP
• To replace the lieutenant governor, create a system similar to the one that the federal government has in place: the president (governor) can appoint a vice president (lieutenant governor), subject to confirmation. But accomplishing such an institutional reform would not be quick. Two successive legislatures would have to propose such a change before it goes on the ballot. Thus, the reform could not become law until 2011 or 2012.

Joseph Mercurio, vice president and mid-Atlantic director of the American Association of Political Consultants, president of the political consulting and polling group National Political Services, Inc.
• Apply New York City’s campaign finance laws to the State Legislature to restrict fundraising, but with a more liberal cap on spending.

• Restrict people who work in lobbying firms and public interest groups from making donations, and prohibit lobbyists from working on political campaigns.

• More robust elections: “We actually have a lot of turnover in the New York State Legislature-unfortunately the turnover is the result of, you know, death, elevation to higher office, but mostly because of indictments and convictions.”

Liz Feld, mayor of Larchmont, N.Y., 2008 Republican candidate for State Senate
• Convene an immediate Constitutional Convention. To keep lobbyists, special interest groups and unions from influencing the proceedings, an independent panel of former executives, former governors and former statewide officeholders should chair the convention and set the agenda.

Laura Seago, research associate at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, co-author of the center’s most recent report on Albany reform
• “Committees are so weak and the majority leader is so strong, and so what we need to do is enact rules reform that requires committees to actually do real work on the bill, to actually show up and read the legislation under consideration, amend it, discuss it, debate it and pass it out of committee.” After the June 8 takeover, Republicans did make it simpler for bills to move out of committee to the Senate floor; Seago hopes the reform will stick.

John Faso, former Assembly member and Republican minority leader, 2006 Republican nominee for governor, partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP
• Procedurally, resources for both majority and minority parties need to be equalized (under the current system, the majority doles out resources, creating a fairly lopsided situation).

• “From a policy perspective, the state needs to change the tax-spend-and-borrow policies which have pursued under both parties for the last 40 years.”

Rick Lazio, former Long Island Congressman and 2000 Republican senate candidate who intends to run for governor
• Convene a Constitutional Convention and abolish the Assembly and Senate in favor of a new unicameral legislature, “which would be more efficient and make government meet the needs of the people.”

Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research group, a nonprofit consumer, environmental and government reform organization
• Change the way districts are configured: “The way the system’s set up now the legislators draw their own district lines.” What the state needs is an independent re-districting commission with people drawing districts who have nothing invested in the outcome.

• Campaign finance reform could aid challengers, so that it’s actually possible to win against an incumbent.

Susan Lerner, president of Common Cause New York, a nonprofit political advocacy group
• The Senate’s majority party will ostensibly control how districts are drawn in 2012, which partly explains why neither side would quickly agree to a power-sharing arrangement. Districting is a powerful tool that can be used for political purposes. “Taking redistricting out of hands of legislators can have a positive effect,” Lerner said.

Carl McCall, former state comptroller and 2002 Democratic candidate for governor
• Identify a legislative or constitutional solution to fill a vacancy for the lieutenant governor’s position.

• Campaign finance reform, include public financing, “so that we take away the unfair advantage that incumbents have.”

• Greater accountability from legislators: “That’s pretty vague, but basically we need to have better information about legislators and their records and their voting and the positions that they take.”

Gerald Benjamin, dean at SUNY New Paltz
• “Think outside the box: why do we need a bicameral legislature?” Benjamin asks. There is a rationale for bicameralism in federal government. There is a House whose membership is based on population and a Senate in which each state gets two representatives. In Albany, State Senators are similar to Assembly members in that they are elected to two-year terms and have districts carved up based on population. The difference is that State Senators represent larger districts than Assembly members.

Edward Cox, worked for presidents Richard Nixon (also his father-in-law), George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, attorney with Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler
• Create more effective committees with professional staffs; majority and minority staffs should be relatively balanced in number, though the majority staff should be slightly larger.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a nonprofit good government advocacy group
• Stronger campaign finance law would prevent key players such as State Sen. Pedro Espada from being elected to office in the first place (Espada has been fined tens of thousands of dollars for violations).

• A change in attitude is also in order. Despite being in the minority for 40 years, Democrats continued the Republicans’ winner-take-all style of distributing member item money, staff and resources. When Republicans were starved of these resources during their six months in the minority, a power-grab was almost expected. “The spirit of revenge created this chaos,” Dadey said.

Doug Muzzio, professor at Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs
• Mandate an odd number of State Senators: “You can’t have a tie with an odd number. With an even number? Come on.”

• Term limits for state legislators, a concept that he generally opposes: “In this case, they are so entrenched and irresponsible, I would do something to get rid of them almost as a body,” Muzzio said. “Just to clean out the stables and start again, even though generally I’m not in favor of it.”

Rudolph Giuliani, former New York City mayor and 2008 Republican presidential candidate (excerpted from Giuliani’s June 24 New York Times op-ed)
• Require a supermajority for tax increases; “a supermajority would protect already over-burdened citizens and attract businesses, improving our long-term competitiveness.”

• Institute an automatic cost-of-living adjustment and an improved base salary for New York’s judiciary to attract qualified people who are not beholden to party bosses and power brokers.

Tom Golisano, billionaire founder of Paychex, gubernatorial candidate, political operative whose group, Responsible New York, helped engineer the June 8 Senate coup
• Responsible state budgeting: “three men in the room got us to this point. We elect 212 legislators who should all be involved in passing budgets.”

• Real estate tax reform: “unfair property taxes are killing Upstate New York.”

Tom Suozzi, Nassau County executive and Eliot Spitzer challenger in the 2006 Democratic primary for governor
• “The problem that exists in Albany is that everybody gets re-elected regardless of what they do.” Publicly financed elections are one way of creating a more level playing field between incumbents and challengers, and redistricting reform could also spark more competitive elections.

Mitchell Moss, Henry Hart Rice Professor Urban Policy and Planning at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, director of NYU’s Taub Urban Research Center from 1987 to 2002
• Rein in the comptroller’s control over state pension funds so that one person does not have sole power.

• Simplify and reform state environmental impact regulations and requirements.

• Give New York City more control over its tax policies and financing mechanisms.

Dall Forsythe, professor at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and a former budget director for the State of New York, author of Memos to the Governor: An Introduction to State Budgeting (Georgetown University Press, 2004)
• Create a unicameral legislature. “Only Nebraska is wise enough to have a one-house legislature.”

• Start the fiscal year on July 1, like most other states, and have the governor unilaterally set revenue estimates, as New York City’s mayor does. Alternatively, an independent commission could set revenue estimates, like in the State of Washington.

Justin Phillips, assistant professor of political science at Columbia University
• New York might consider some limited direct democracy, like in California, but with modifications. “You can say citizen initiatives can’t be used to set budget policy but can be used for political reform.”

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