2010-09-24 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Zombies In The Voting Booth
by Stuart W. Mirsky

If you think this coming November’s election is just about the Obama- Pelosi-Reid axis in Washington and their historic overreach (giant stimulus packages and Healthcare legislation most voters didn’t want, but which they passed anyway, adding trillions to the national debt), think again. Our own state problems in Albany are hardly better as we careen along the path to fiscal insolvency, the cliff of collapse and bankruptcy dead ahead.

According to State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli (D), New York State debt “now stands at an historic $48.5 billion, including $3.5 billion in General Obligation bonds and notes outstanding and an additional $45.0 billion issued and outstanding by State public authorities.”

Why so much? Because state legislators routinely vote to spend more than we have, plugging the gaps with borrowed money. But loans have to be paid back, with interest, just like mortgages or car or credit card borrowings. And it’s that interest that really gets you.

Some borrowing is good, of course. It enables us to have things we couldn’t otherwise afford and spurs economic growth, gets businesses humming, and so forth. Credit’s a useful invention. But as we recently saw with the global financial bust of 2008, it has its downsides. When too many people borrow too much money to pay back, the roof falls in.

Couldn’t happen here, right? Well, look at California, which, because of its own fiscal deficit, has had to issue scrip in lieu of money to pay its employees, put others on furlough, as it watches its interest costs on bond issuances skyrocket while businesses flee that state for friendlier climes.

The result: high unemployment and some of the highest taxes in the nation as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, one- time darling of the fiscally responsible, flails away, just another failed state executive counting the days until Californians replace him.

Nearby New Jersey, another state floundering in debt and facing insolvency, may have found its savior in a tough minded new governor Chris Christie, a man willing to take on that state’s public employee unions and finally draw a line in the fiscal sand.

Thus far no one’s done it in New York. But do voters really think what happens in Albany stays in Albany? Someone’s gotta pay the tab after all.

As a March 29 piece in the New York Times (“State Woes Too Big to Camouflage”) pointed out: “California, New York and other states are showing many of the same signs of debt overload that recently took Greece to the brink - budgets that will not balance, accounting that masks debt, the use of derivatives to plug holes, and armies of retired public workers who are counting on benefits that are proving harder and harder to pay.”

In the same month, Reuters ran a piece noting that, “The $120 billion that New York State owes in debt, health and pension benefits for public workers puts it in the danger zone . . . getting down to the safety zone requires a $20 billion cut.”

Our legislature, of course, has other ideas. Instead of cutting spending, they’ve added more user fees and kicked our taxes up yet again in an annual ritual of irresponsibility. According to Reuters again: “New York’s ability to pay its bills was estimated at a ratio of 1.099, meaning that for every dollar of resources it has, there are $1.099 worth of obligations.” For “resources” read taxes because that’s what they are. But high taxes and state fees (for things like driver’s licenses, automobile registration, etc.) don’t only hurt you when you pay them. They hurt us in other ways by weighing down the economy because they drive businesses from the state and suppressing new business, killing jobs. Well, there are always government jobs, right? But government produces nothing, although it typically costs more than the private sector because of boondoggles and nonaccountability of the workforce. So how did we get here? Year after year New York voters troop to the polls and vote with little thought about who they are actually sending to Albany to represent them.

In what has become a ritualized process, we march like zombies into the voting booths and dutifully pull the levers (mark paper ballots this year thanks to a new voting system) for the names we’re most familiar with. How do we know them? Most of them have been around for nearly forever.

People like our State Assembly representative, Audrey Pheffer, a likeable non-entity with no ideas of her own and no history of public leadership but a face you’ve seen in thousands of photo ops, command our votes with little thought given to what she and her comrades are actually doing up there in the State capital.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is what they’re doing: They’re spending our money in amounts that exceed what we send up to Albany, meaning we’re on the hook for their debt binges and we’re going to be dunned by still higher tax levels in the future to keep the “good times rolling.“ Oh sure, Audrey hands out oodles of state funds to local groups to buy the goodwill (and voting favor) of the various communities she represents. But the so-called “member items” she’s handing out is our tax money, too, and only adds to the fiscal deficit Reuters and the Times and innumerable other commentators have been warning about.

But come election time, Audrey routinely cranks up her PR machine to get her name and face in the paper in increasing doses while sending off letters to the local papers supporting the latest cause celebre. This past summer she whipped off another of her biting missives to the MTA, once more calling on the MTA to restore the local toll exemption over the Crossbay Bridge. A letter to the editor! Give us a break. She’s an elected state official for goodness sake and Albany is one of the main funding sources of the MTA. You’d think an Assemblywoman could do a little better than a letter to the editor, wouldn’t you?

Voters can and should do more this November than just sending the same old same old back to the state capital. They can choose to skip the ritualized ballot-marking procedure which registers mindless votes for familiar names and faces merely because they are familiar and no matter how little they’ve actually done, and take a chance on change. Although she’s been in the Assembly non-stop for some 23 years now, our incumbent Assemblywoman has no significant legislation to her credit while our state fiscal house, for which she has responsibility, stands ready to implode. This year her challenger is a young doctor, a Belle Harbor resident and podiatrist who was born and raised in Queens and Brooklyn to immigrant parents from South America. Dr. Harold Paez, a political tyro, says he became increasingly fed up with conditions in Albany and with the state of our local representation. That’s why he stepped forward to offer voters in the 23rd AD another chance to change the tone and tenor of State government.

We can’t complain any longer that we don’t have a choice because, thanks to people like Harold Paez, we do. And we can’t go on complaining that our taxes are too high, government costs too much and that entities like the MTA keep hitting us with increases and unjustified tolls when we continue to blindly send the same do-nothing people to Albany who have presided over this state’s incredible decline in the first place. If voters don’t finally get it together to send a message in November and toss out those who’ve gotten us into this mess, there can be little hope they ever will.

If you think the 2008 fiscal collapse was a debacle, wait till you catch the sequel.

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