Reforming Albany

The New York State Capitol in AlbanyThere are 150 members of the New York State Assembly and 62 Senators. There are 19 million of us. They are seriously outnumbered.

How do you force the politicians in Albany to reform a rotten system that benefits them at the expense of the people of New York? The perception is that the government in New York state is corrupt, unethical, and dishonest, and that nothing can be done. That’s just the way it is and nobody can change it. It’s politics as usual.

I disagree. We can fix Albany. It is not an impossible task. A serious ethics law is the first step. No meaningful reform will come out of Albany until a real ethics law is passed. Everything else will flow from that. Here is how we can force them to enact a serious ethics law.

Common Cause or the League of Women Voters should write an ethics law for the New York Assembly and Senate. It should be written in plain English so that a fifth grader can read and understand it.

It should be published in all of the daily newspapers in New York state on the same day. That is important. It should take up the entire page. It should be published on their websites as well.   At the bottom of the document leave a space for every member of the Assembly and Senate to sign it.

It would be like the signatures on the Declaration of Independence. If the signature isn’t legible, print the name too. This will take ethics reform out of the State Capitol in Albany and put it in front of the public in plain view.

The newspapers should also publish the phone numbers, email, and postal addresses of each member of the legislature. The newspapers should ask each reader to contact their representatives and demand that they sign the new ethics law as published in the paper.

The League of Women Voters or Common Cause would be the main contact point for the legislators. They would have to send a letter saying that they supported the ethics law and to please sign their name to it so that their constituents could see it.

This document would be updated every day with the new signatures on the websites of the newspapers until there are enough signatures to make it a law. You would be able to see on a daily basis who supported it and who didn’t support it.

This should shame the politicians into doing the right thing, since they won’t do it themselves. Voters will be looking for the names of their representatives. If voters don’t see their names, they can call them and find out why. If not enough signatures are obtained after 30 days, proceed to step two.

Step 2 would be a daily protest at the State Capitol in Albany. A hundred people a day would do. This would go on every day while the legislature is in session.

If there are still not enough signatures and the legislature goes home, proceed to step three.

Step 3 would be several protesters following each individual legislator 24 hours a day until they sign the document. Everywhere the legislator went, there would be protestors with signs following them.

Eventually, there will be enough signatures. Someone will have to introduce a bill to make the ethics law a real, legal law that the Assembly and Senate must obey or face the consequences. The first person to step up and sign the ethics law in the newspaper should have the privilege of introducing the bill.

After the ethics bill becomes a law, the members of the Assembly and Senate should have to take an oath and proclaim that they have read it, understand it and will act accordingly.

There has got to be a way to reform the politicians in Albany. Business as usual is killing this state. The citizens of New York are being cheated everyday.

Paul Krugman, the Pulitzer Prize winning economist from Princeton University and a New York Times columnist, said on the Bill Maher show last September, “We need a better government than we’ve got.”

He was talking about the federal government in Washington, D.C., but you can apply it to New York state government just as easily.

We need a better government than we’ve got and we need it now.

Reforming Local Government In New York

The New York State Capitol in AlbanyAccording to New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, our system of local government is broken. There are 10,521 units of government that duplicate services creating needless, wasteful bureaucracies. He is proposing legislation to empower citizens and local governments to consolidate or dissolve these redundant entities.

You can read all about it on the Attorney General’s website. On the same site, you can also watch a half-hour video of AG Andrew Cuomo giving a presentation on reforming local government.

In a December 2008 press release Cuomo said: “Despite New Yorkers drowning for decades in some of the nation’s highest taxes, local leaders have been blocked from reforming local government in an effort to cut government waste and reduce the tax burden. During this economic crisis, leaders have an historic opportunity to fundamentally reform this state’s patchwork quilt of local government entities. These layers upon layers of taxing entities have a chokehold on state residents, and antiquated and arcane laws governing them perpetuate government inefficiency. Our goal is to reform those laws so communities, where appropriate, can reduce local government burden and reduce the cost of living in this great state.”

He is right. There are too many levels of local government. This may have made sense years ago, but it doesn’t make sense today. It has to change.

Cuomo goes on to say that current laws make reform almost impossible. The laws are inconsistent and difficult to understand, even for lawyers working for the Attorney General! Cuomo is proposing new legislation to empower the average citizen with the ability to initiate the consolidation or dissolution process for all local government entities.

Governor David Paterson had this to say: “We need to help our working families by doing everything we can to lower the cost of government. We cannot achieve real, sustainable property tax relief without addressing local government efficiency…. I applaud Attorney General Cuomo for addressing the root cause of these inefficiencies; layers of bureaucracy that duplicate service and drive up costs to residents.”

New York State Senator Betty Little said: “The state fiscal crisis is forcing every level of government to look at ways to control spending and increase efficiency. As a result, more communities are now interested in examining dissolutions and consolidations as a way to avoid property tax increases.”

Cuomo says that consolidating or dissolving inefficient local governments can save New Yorker’s an estimated 5 to 22 percent on their property taxes, which are the highest in the nation. Even if it is only 5 percent, I’ll take it. When was the last time your property taxes went down?

The Attorney General’s office has been conducting investigations into waste, fraud and abuse at various levels of government. Those investigations have resulted in numerous settlements and convictions that have saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

I would like to see Cuomo join forces with Thomas Suozzi who was the chairman of the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief.  I wrote about the Commission’s report in a previous post, “Why Are Property Taxes In New York So High“.

New York needs to get moving on consolidating local governments and school districts. Having the highest local property taxes in the nation makes New York an undesirable place to live or start a business.

The New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC) recently released a report called, “The Gathering Storm, The Challenges Confronting the Future of New York.” It was written by Jeff Osinski, Director of Research and Education, New York State Association of Counties. It is a publication of NYSAC and the Dennis A. Pelletier County Government Institute, Inc.

The title, “The Gathering Storm” was no accident. It is the title of the first book in Sir Winston Churchill’s six volume memoir, “The Second World War.”

In the Forward to the NYSAC report, Stephen J. Acquario,  Executive Director says, “There is no question that our state faces an important crossroad. We face two possible futures: one where we continue to lose people, businesses and jobs to other states; or one in which we leverage our strengths to rebuild our economy, foster innovation and attract people and businesses.

“It is time that the leaders in this state—state and local leaders—work together to turn this ship of state in a different direction. We need to examine our public policy habits that have caused decades of overspending, overtaxing, over-regulating and overmandating. If our counties and our communities are going to grow again, state leaders need to fundamentally change the way they do business in Albany.”

The Introduction to the report says, a recent study conducted by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania forecasts that 17 of the top 50 counties in population loss in the nation by the year 2020 will be New York counties.

The financial news network CNBC ranks New York State as the most expensive state in the nation in which to do business. Forbes ranks the state 49th in its business cost rankings. CEO Magazine ranks us 50th and the national Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council ranks New York State’s tax burden 44th.

New York also ranked 46th in costs of basic essentials, food, housing and energy. Only Alaska, New Jersey, California and Hawaii ranked higher in the costs for basic essentials.

New York ranked 49th in the quality of the workforce.

Is anybody in Albany listening?

What is it going to take for the New York State Assembly and Senate to stop being Democrats or Republicans and do what is best for the citizens of New York state?

Ethics Reform In Albany, New York

The New York State Capitol in AlbanyThe recent indictment of former New York State Senator Joseph A. Bruno on federal corruption charges has once again brought attention to the need for ethics reform in New York state government.

Albany has been the capital of New York state since 1797. That is 212 years. I think that is enough time to come up with a strong, meaningful ethics law for its lawmakers.

I have some commonsense suggestions.

Senate and Assembly “jobs” should be considered full time. We are paying them $79,500 a year for a job they consider “part time.” That is more than the full time pay of most New Yorkers who work 40 hours a week for the entire year. The legislature meets from January to mid-June, several days a week. While they have part time hours, they get full time pay. What are they doing the rest of the year? They should be representing the people of New York at all times.

Let’s tell our 62 Senators and 150 Assembly Members that their job is now considered full time. They are not allowed to receive one dime more than their legislative salary in compensation from any other employment or “consultant” source. If they don’t like it, they can go back to whatever they were doing before they got elected. That should weed out some of the ones that are in it for the money and the power.

Senators and Assembly Members should also be limited to three, two year terms. Six years is enough. These should not be lifetime career positions. This would also insure a turnover in the ranks. You wouldn’t have people hanging around for 30 years for the power trip and the what’s in it for me attitude. If we had average citizens in the legislature instead of “professional” politicians, a lot more meaningful work would get done. If you doubt that, let’s try it and see.

I read in a letter to the editor that rank and file state workers are prohibited from outside employment with, or financial gain from, companies that do business with state government. Why doesn’t this apply to the legislature? It’s ridiculous. Senators and Assembly Members should not be able to leave the legislature and go to work for a company that does business with the state for at least 5 years. Period. What is so difficult about that?

According to the Albany Times Union, New York’s rules for public officials are widely viewed as among the weakest of any large state. What does the physical size of the state or the size of the population have to do with ethics? The same rules should apply to Alaska that apply to Rhode Island. This is not rocket science. It is commonsense and it’s about time.

It should take Albany about an hour to create and pass a meaningful ethics law, but I’ll give them an entire day. It should be written so that a fifth grader can read it and understand it in less than 20 minutes.

If they don’t want to take my suggestions, Common Cause has a list called, “Ten Steps Lawmakers Can Take to Reform Albany.” Step 6 says: The Governor and legislators should agree to ban gifts from lobbyists and create an independent ethics commission. Well, I guess that would be a start. If they mean an actual commission that will watch over the shenanigans of the legislature after a strong ethics bill is in force, that would be fine. After 212 years, I think we need to put a strong ethics law together quickly. Isn’t there a state somewhere in this country that has an honest, straightforward, commonsense ethics law with teeth, to govern their lawmakers? Can’t we just copy that?

Step 1 of Common Cause’s 10 Steps is about redistricting. It says: “Support the creation of an independent redistricting commission based on the state of Iowa’s successful model.”

The way that the state of New York’s districts were made is just another form of unethical behavior. Commonsense, logic and fairness were completely absent when the legislative districts were created. The Senate Republicans and the Assembly Democrats are allowed to draw the district lines for their respective house. That is just unbelievable. Who thought that one up?

Read what Common Cause says about redistricting reform. Common Cause says that incumbent state legislative candidates are re-elected at a staggering rate. In over 2500 general election races in the past 24 years, a challenger has beaten an incumbent only 34 times. Holy cow. That is ridiculous.

A lot of people that I talk to seem to accept that New York and Albany have been dysfunctional and corrupt for years and that it will always be that way. What can you do? That’s just the way it is.

There must be something that can be done. There must be a way for New Yorkers to get an honest, functional government in Albany that works for the citizens instead of special interests.

Why can’t the citizens of New York get their representatives to create and pass a serious ethics law? That would be a good first step.

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