2006-09-08 / Editorial/Opinion

Mirsky: If It's Broke, Fix It!

This is the second in a series of position papers written by Stu Mirsky, the Republican/Conservative candidate for the New York State Assembly Seat now held by Audrey Pheffer. We are publishing his statements in the public interest.

Whenever people ask me why I decided to run for the Assembly from my district, the 23rd in South Queens, I tell them to just think about what's wrong with Albany.

Of course, everyone knows that a state legislator, whether in the Assembly or the Senate, doesn't have a lot of power. But our government is a democracy, which means it's built on lots of people voting according to their conscience and best judgment. No single Assemblyperson can hope to go up to Albany and fix everything. But as long as none of our Assembly people care enough to try, as long as none of them even seem to have a clue that we have a problem with how things are currently proceeding in the state capital, nothing's likely to get fixed at all. There's an old Chinese proverb, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Sending legislators to Albany who care about fixing what's busted is that first step and if enough districts in the state decide to send legislators who want to do that, then that thousand miles of genuine governmental reform can be traversed.

We all know by now that New York State has just about the highest state and local taxes in the nation. We know, too, that while the downstate area has prospered in recent years, thanks to a solid national economic revival, our upstate cousins remain in an economic funk. This reflects the drag on economic activity that high state and local taxes cause. When the next national economic downturn hits, the downstate area is unlikely to avoid the fate now afflicting the rest of the state. Why? Because our esteemed solons in the Albany legislature have been spending our tax dollars like . . . well like they were their dollars! This year alone, according to the Empire Center for New York State Policy, "New York's new $112.5 billion budget includes the largest state spending increase in more than three decades."

Albany, in fact, has been routinely spending more than it takes in reflecting a high and ever growing public debt which it carries both on and off the books. From out-of-control state spending authorities, to politically motivated budget busting expenditures that exceed our expected capacity to pay for them, our legislature has been spending current and future tax revenue like a drunken sailor on shore leave.

Over some 500 so-called public authorities, ostensibly non-governmental entities, actually create debt for public purposes without Albany or local governments having to go to the voters for approval (as required by state charter). Yet the state remains the payer of last resort for such debt should any of the authorities default. Public authority debt is really a sneaky fiction that lets state and local governments borrow beyond what taxpayers actually see. The authorities are, in fact, convenient political cover created and maintained by Albany, operating in the shadows with utterly inadequate fiscal oversight.

Just as bad, our state representatives routinely vote to increase things like pension and medical benefits for public employees beyond the level the state operating budget can sustain. This pleases lots of public employees and their families, of course, most of whom are also voters, as well as ensuring fiscal and electoral support from influential public employee unions. All of this helps get politicians who vote for these packages re-elected time after time. But it's not responsible governance.

According to George Marlin a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New York State is actually set to hit the fiscal wall as early as 2008 when state and local pension and medical costs reach unsustainable levels. Look for a budget crisis of massive proportions. New York State, already overtaxed and mired in overspending, will have nowhere to go but down the fiscal tubes. If the state were a private organization its executives and board members would find themselves facing prosecution, like Enron's big names. But politicians rarely have to worry about that kind of accountability.

So what's wrong up in Albany anyway? Don't they see the coming train wreck? Like every dependent personality, our legislators are drunk on the elixir of incumbency and most of them probably figure they won't be around when the problems finally hit anyway. Driving us all toward the cliff, most figure the precipice is still a long way off and they'll be jumping out anyway before that last critical turn.

It's not that most of our present crop of legislators are bad people. They just don't see what they don't want to see. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, New York's "legislative process is broken." The current system, say the report authors, Jeremy M. Creelan and Laura Moulton, is rigged to emasculate the legislative process.

The committee system, where our legislators would normally be expected to review and assess proposed legislation is a case in point. Contrary to the way legislative committees work in other states and even in the U.S. Congress, Albany committees don't even have the power to select or control their own staff (it's done for them by the leadership). And they can't conduct public hearings with expert testimony when seeking to assess complex legislative proposals.

Committee membership, in fact, is mostly used as a way of granting extra pay to members in good standing. As a result, members are often assigned far more committee positions than they can possibly attend adequately. Some even find themselves punished for balking their "leaders" by having plum committee assignments, with those corresponding extra paychecks, snatched away for bad behavior! Thus our legislators are kept in line, marching in lockstep to the music of a few "leaders" who virtually dictate what they can and cannot vote on.

Restrictive discharge rules, according to the same Brennan Center report, prevent committees or individual legislators from actually acting to bring votes to the floor when these are opposed by leadership, and legislative calendaring (deciding what will be voted on and when) is almost exclusively in the hands of that same leadership. These things, too, are anomalies found in few legislatures other than New York's. All lead to weak, ineffective legislative representation.

Until recently, when the rules were changed because of that same Brennan Center report, so-called "empty seat voting" allowed the leadership to count legislators who had clocked in for the day but were actually absent when a vote was taken as if they were present. If they weren't present to vote "no," then they were marked down as having voted "yes"! The rules and practices governing our state legislature lead directly to legislative inattentiveness and reveal a deep lack of seriousness by our duly elected representatives. Is it any wonder that their main interest seems to be nothing more profound than getting themselves re-elected year in and year out or that there's so little focus on what's actually good for New York State up in Albany?

One new person sent to Albany won't change this, of course. But if we want to get started, if we recognize the long journey that lies ahead of us, we have to begin somewhere and we must do it one legislator at a time. If elected to represent my fellow citizens in the 23rd AD, I plan to fight for rules changes that will restore legislative effectiveness and get us back on the road to good governance by voting to rein in overspending and sky high taxation, and by supporting reform measures across the board. I'm not going up there just to get along. I'll be going, if I go, because I believe in the thousandmile journey.

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