2008-07-04 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Taxing Matters
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

In the wake of State Senator Joe Bruno's abrupt retirement announcement, leadership in the State Senate has passed to Nassau County Senator Dean Skelos. The State Senate, of course, is one of our two state legislative houses and one part of the tripartite management of state affairs that has been characterized for decades as rule by "three men in a room."

Because of arcane and relatively undemocratic rules, the structure of our state legislature is such that each legislative leader dominates his house with an iron fist, controlling the legislative agenda, doling out fiscal and job perks (or taking them away) based on how cooperative members are, and tightly managing committee activity and participation. With each legislative house firmly in the pocket of its leader, getting anything done in state government becomes a matter of the two legislative leaders agreeing with the governor, rather than broader discussions, caucuses and policy debates. This is what makes the "three men in a room" syndrome possible, giving each of these players an effective veto over all important decisions.

Needless to say, it also leads to a process that's relatively insulated from voter scrutiny as the big three cut their deals and scratch each other's backs. There's another impact as well. It opens the three to doing deals, not only with one another but with interest groups looking to feather their own nests. In the latter days of the Pataki administration for instance, our former governor was often accused of selling out to Dennis Rivera's health workers union because he supported policies that led to substantial raises for that union's workers. No one objects to others doing well, of course, but it shouldn't come as a result of political clout and influence.

In the current cycle, with David Paterson now in the Governor's mansion in Albany (after former Governor Eliot Spitzer's surprising political demise), the issue of the day revolves around property taxes. Governor Paterson recently announced support in principle for a statewide property tax cap (not affecting New York City). But will the legislative houses go along? With Bruno out, Dean Skelos needs to make his mark, especially given the fact that Republicans cling to a delicate two-seat majority in the Senate while the Democrats hold the State Assembly by a much stronger margin and seem poised to capture the State Senate as well, giving them control of all branches of state government.

Skelos recently told The New York Sun that he supports property tax cuts and favors the currently proposed property tax cap which, while allowing increases, limits these to 4% annually. In New York City we already have certain caps in place though, with the city's annual effort to upwardly adjust market values (even when those values are clearly in decline!) it's hard to see them as particularly effective in keeping our property taxes down. But the larger issue now is statewide. Will New York's historically big spending government finally start to rein in costs or will it be business as usual, despite two new faces in the room?

Why are tax cuts and caps important? Obviously the government depends on money to operate and, granted that we need a government and its services, taxes are the primary way governments are funded. But the real question is how much is enough - and when is it too much? Taxpayers rightly think they should be asked to pay no more than is needed and that what's needed should be fair and reasonable. But interest groups, and group members, have different priorities since the funds raised through these taxes go to pay them either directly or indirectly. Property taxes, for instance, are generally used by local jurisdictions to run their school systems and schools employ teachers.

Needless to say, those who get paid by these systems want to see more funds poured in because fewer funds means reduced hiring, smaller staffs and fewer salary increases. Teachers and their allies argue that we need more and better paid teachers to provide adequate schooling although it's not at all clear that more spending is a critical factor or any kind of a significant factor at all. Creative teaching approaches and accountability seem to be much more important and money alone can't buy these. At the very least, though, those who benefit directly from greater spending ought to have their arguments for increases critically evaluated since they have a vested interest in the matter.

According to the June 30 New York Sun, "three quarters of New Yorkers say they support a (real estate tax) cap" but Skelos, while affirming his own support for this, told The Sun that Democratic Assembly leader Sheldon Silver is in the opposite camp. The teachers' union is now playing the game that the health workers union and many others have played before, seeking to bring enough influence to bear on the "three men in a room" who run this state to get their way. Governor Paterson, a Democrat, seems bent on establishing a solid enough record to win re-election in his own right while not alienating his own party's leadership. He can do this without unduly annoying the teachers and their allies by saying one thing while Assembly leader Silver remains obdurate.

That obstinacy is enough to hold the line and prevent caps from being voted into place so Democrats can, in effect, have their cake and eat it, too. Perhaps the new Senate Republican leader, Skelos, is thinking this way, too, though hopefully both he and Paterson are sincere in their expressions of support for property tax caps. However, because this state's legislature operates largely in secret (made possible by arcane rules that convey agenda con- trol to the dominant party's leader), we may well be facing the same obstacles to good government at the state level now as in the past, despite a change in two of the three faces at the top.

Two years ago local Republicans here in Rockaway proposed a reform agenda calling for changing the legislature's rules of operation, putting spending and budgeting decisions under a critical fiscal microscope, and opening up the electoral process to make it easier to challenge and run against incumbents. Unfortunately, these ideas didn't fly with the majority of voters and the 23rd Assembly District sent the incumbent back to Albany for yet another two-year term.

Two years and two new governors later, voters in the 23rd AD have a chance to rethink that decision. Breezy Point resident Gerald Sullivan has declared for the Assembly seat, on the Republican line, held for the last twenty years by a Democratic incumbent. If voters really want to change how business gets done in Albany, if they really want to refocus on curbing spending excesses (more critical than ever in the face of a weakening economy) they can vote to send a message by changing their representation in the State Assembly.

Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver, long seen as in the pocket of the interest groups, can only serve these factions if he continues to command a Democratic majority in the Assembly. He only wields the enormous power that comes with being one of the "three men in a room" by leading a Democratcontrolled state Assembly. The way to shake things up and tell the folks in Albany we want fiscal accountability and real value for every dollar spent in our names is to do it one representative at a time. Sending Gerry Sullivan to Albany is a first critical step in the drive to break the governing stranglehold maintained by the same old incumbents year after year in this state. And it's the first step, as well, in telling our representatives that the solution to every problem doesn't lie in taxing New York voters into the poor house.


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