2006-10-06 / Columnists

It's My Turn

What's the Point of an Assembly Person Anyway?
Commentary By Stuart Mirsky Candidate For Assembly 23 AD

Commentary By Stuart Mirsky
Candidate For Assembly 23 AD

STUMIRSKY Along with being asked, over and over again, why I decided to run for Assembly this year, against an entrenched two-decade incumbent, I often get another, even more telling, question: What does an Assemblyman, or woman, do anyway? It's a good one. Why vote to send anyone up to Albany after all? Would it matter if we didn't? And, when we do, what are we sending them there to do for us? What should we expect?

The quick answer is that, in our system of government, laws are made by elected legislatures. Every state has them. In New York, as in most states (no less than at the federal level) we have two legislative houses. Both must vote for a bill to turn it into law. So we vote to select and send people to Albany to make state laws in our name.

One obvious problem, however, is that while we're often directly affected by local governmental activities (how well is the garbage being collected, are there enough cops on the street?) and we're very much aware of national issues (should we have gone into Iraq?), we often lose sight of state concerns because they're sandwiched somewhere in between.

Of course, state government does a whole slew of things, in some ways overlapping both the feds and the city. The state runs the federal Medicaid program, for instance, along with many others which affect our citizenry. It provides road and other construction between local jurisdictions. It plays a major role in how our local school systems are structured and funded. And it makes laws to cover areas not ceded to the feds under the Constitution. Being a major enterprise, it also develops and funds an annual budget to keep its many pieces humming along. Our state legislators play a part in these things, each assemblyperson and state senator casting votes for or against bills that may or may not become law.

The state legislature has the power to raise or lower our state taxes, to keep state spending and debt creation under control (or not!), and to permit or restrict increases in charter schools. It can find ways to create innovative means of funding our schools, e.g., a voucher system that empowers parents to direct the tax dollars allocated to their kids' education to better performing schools.

What else do we get from a legislator? By virtue of holding public office, each Assemblyperson immediately takes on a very special role, becoming a kind of local ombudsman. Legislators, once elected, have access ordinary citizens don't. A call from an Assembly person can open doors and get the attention of other government officials, both elected and appointed, at all levels. This can make things happen that might otherwise languish.

So the answer to the question 'why send anyone to the Assembly in Albany?' is twofold: to represent our interests in making state laws and budgets; and to secure an effective local voice in the councils of government. The multi-tiered federal system under which we live sometimes seems an awkward one, woefully inefficient. But with all its faults, it has stood the test of time. In this year's Assembly race, voters need to ask themselves "am I getting the best representation I can at the state level?" and "am I getting the most responsive and effective voice on the local level?"

I have tried, through a series of articles carried in many of our local papers, to tell people where I stand on a variety of issues, and why I think change is in order. So far my opponent hasn't. Perhaps, as a well funded two-decade incumbent, who has rarely if ever had to face serious opposition, this looks like good strategy to her. Perhaps, in her place, I'd feel no different. But the truth is she owes it to us to say exactly where she stands and what she hopes to accomplish if voters choose to cast their lot with her again and send her back to Albany.

At least one local paper (The Wave) has already offered to bring us together in a debate. I've accepted publicly three times already and even sent Assemblywoman Pheffer a letter inviting her to join me in this.

Time is running out. How can voters make an informed choice if they only hear from one side on the issues before Election Day?

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