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Three Men in a Room: our dysfunctional state government--and how to change it

The Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), which requires unanimity from its three controlling members—Governor George Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno—is just a symptom of the dysfunctionality of our state government, a dysfunctionality that New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg chose to highlight recently in his condemnation of the PACB's rejection of the Moynihan Station plan.

But the phrase “three men in a room” describes much more than the PACB, as former State Senator Seymour Lachman describes in his timely book of analysis and advocacy, Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story of Power and Betrayal in an American Statehouse, coauthored by Robert Polner. Indeed, the entire legislative and governmental process is distorted by an absence of democracy. (Lachman, who calls Albany “one of the country’s most secretive and misruled statehouses,” will be a guest on WNYC radio's Brian Lehrer Show today at 10 a.m.)

Few of our elected representatives come off well. Is it no surprise that several of the officials who back the Atlantic Yards plan are among those who benefit from and support the systematic dysfunction? Or that Brooklyn Assemblyman Jim Brennan, who has tried unsuccessfully to foster transparency in the state’s budget process (and found himself on the outs with legislative leaders), has been out in front in seeking more financial details about Atlantic Yards?

The push for reform has come less from politicians than from a handful of good-government groups and the press. Given that the New York Times has editorially chastised the Legislature for a lack of transparency and for a perpetually late budget, it becomes all the more glaring that the Times has failed to fill a vacuum and editorially scrutinize the Atlantic Yards project.

Finally fed up

Lachman, a former University Dean of the City University of New York, spent nine years in the State Senate, representing southern Brooklyn (and later, part of Staten Island, after a hostile redistricting), retiring at the end of 2004 for an academic position, concluding that he "couldn’t possibly make an important difference—despite occasional successes—by working from within the system.”

The three men “hold virtually all the cards” as they determine the details of the budget, hire most of the staff, dispense committee chairmanships and membership assignments, assign offices, and “run all the services that legislators rely on, form publications to payroll.” And the leader of each house can stop a bill from moving, while legislators typically have no time to read bills they’re asked to pass—and need not be present for voting. Only five other legislatures in the country accept absentee voting, and only one is like New York’s version, in which senators can sign in and allow their party leader to vote for them.

New York’s legislators pass the smallest percentage of bills introduced in the country, which means that most bills are offered as symbol rather than substance. The legislative committees rarely hold hearings on proposed legislation; Lachman points out that, unlike with Congressional committees, those in New York State don’t have the power to move the bills to a vote of the larger legislative body. During the legislative session, the work week generally extends three days, which means that, despite full-time pay, most legislators moonlight “as attorneys, real estate brokers, or insurance executives.”

Kept in line

How do leaders keep people in line and maintain incumbency? “Member items,” basically a discretionary fund that can be used for worthy civic purposes and also to build political capital. In the Republican-controlled Senate, a minority Democrat might get $100,000 to $200,000 to distribute to local community groups and local services, Republicans sometimes get ten times more. (In the Democrat-controlled Assembly, the flip side obtains.) Those grants, which may serve civic purposes but are never evaluated, help incumbents stay in office—and when Lachman announced plans to retire, his slush fund dried up.

Lachman recounts how Bruno tried to recruit him to the Republican Party or to vote with the party by offering $2 million to $3 million in additional member items. He said no. His district was carved up, and was designed to stretch over to Staten Island.

Lachman reports how Brooklyn Senator Carl Kruger, a Democrat, campaigned for Republican Martin Golden in return for new district boundaries that protected his seat. Golden, an Irish-American Republican, beat Vincent Gentile, an Italian-American Democrat. Gentile couldn’t even get support from the Federation of Italian American Organizations, which had backed him in the past, because Bruno had pushed $2 million to Golden to offer the federation. (Golden and Kruger both support the Atlantic Yards project.)

In Albany, gerrymandering works on behalf of each party--that which controls each respective legislative body. Thus, “bipartisan,” Lachman writes, “means in effect that each party lets the other one do as it wishes I the chamber it dominates.” He calls for the obvious: an independent, nonpartisan commission to oversee redistricting. Gubernatorial frontrunner Eliot Spitzer has made the issue a priority.

Lost money for NYC

Lachman was particularly disillusioned when, in 1999, Silver, Bruno, and Senator Martin Connor (then the Senate minority leader) agreed to do away with the commuter tax, which was a small burden on suburbanites but raised $350 million to $500 million for city services and amenities that also benefited those suburbanites. The reason: to help a Democratic Senate candidate in suburban Rockland County, who ultimately lost.

Why did Connor (an Atlantic Yards supporter, representing a district partly in Brooklyn) and his successor, David Paterson, vote for the repeal? It was what the leadership wanted. Those, like Lachman, who didn’t fall in line found their perks taken away, while those who had been reluctant but came to agree got some new benefits from the legislative leaders, who control discretionary money.

Think about it. Obviously the commuter tax was spread around the city budget, but if the city had, say, another $500 million for affordable housing, politicians might not embrace projects like Atlantic Yards just because they include some affordable housing.

Shameful politicians

Lachman details falls from grace of several politicians, including Senator Guy Vellella of the Bronx/Westchester, Assemblywoman Gloria Davis of the Bronx, and an assemblyman, curiously unnamed, who resigned after a legislative ethics commission issued a report—unreleased—about his misuse of travel funds. He resigned, only to run again successfully, thanks in part to a redistricting that excluded the home of his most serious challenger.

That, of course, is Assemblyman Roger Green, an Atlantic Yards supporter who ran unsuccessfully for Congress this year. The former challenger, Hakeem Jeffries, recently won the primary election for the seat.

Public authorities

Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who served from 1959-73, created the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Urban Development Corporation (now the Empire State Development Corporation, or ESDC), and “an extraordinary number of public authorities (many unaccountable to the Legislature and therefore hugely expensive).”

The genesis of the problem dates more than 75 years, when the state pioneered the use of authorities to pay for infrastructure—roads, bridges, transit—without officially burdening taxpayers. The public authority could issue tax-free bonds to pay for the projects, but the public must ultimately pay the debt. Few state agencies are monitored or audited.

State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who has called public authorities “an immense shadow government,” has done some investigation in recent years, but now he’s politically crippled by his own scandal, using state employees as drivers for his wife.

In 1975, the Urban Development Corporation nearly collapsed, due to a soft real estate market. Had the authority been financed out of general obligation debt, there could have been a public debate about its projects, Lachman writes; because it was an authority, there was no such choice. It was made a subsidiary of another authority, the ESDC.

Gubernatorial control

While the chairpersons and boards of public authorities are more responsive to the governor than in the era of Robert Moses, the longer a governor serves, the more the governor controls them, because he controls the appointments. Lachman offers an observation that likely applies to the ESDC and its posture toward the Atlantic Yards project:
At that point, there is a risk that an authority’s decisions will no longer be based on rational, dispassionate, nonpolitical assessments of the public’s interests, but on the political calculations of the person who appointed a majority of its board.

West Side Stadium

Lachman cites Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s plan for the West Side Stadium—a project announced at $1.4 billion, which escalated to $2.2 billion. (Sound familiar? The Atlantic Yards project has gone from $2.5 billion to $4.2 billion.) Despite significant citizen concern about issues like traffic congestion and skepticism about purported benefits (sound familiar?), the mayor and Pataki remained determined.

Lachman writes:
Their confidence in their ability to prevail was based, in large measure, on their belief that they could bypass both the city and state legislatures and finance the measure through the state’s public authorities. Of course this meant there would be no public referendum. Such confidence represents a remarkable demonstration of the extent to which the state’s public authorities, originally designed to act as nonpoliticized tools of the public’s interests, have become unilateral tools of politicians.

What happened with the West Side Stadium? The Jets offered $210 million for a site with development rights estimated at $923 million. Cablevision offered $400 million. TransGas offered $700 million, with some conditions. The MTA accepted the Jets offer, saying that the overall value of the bid—including an accelerated construction schedule and a pledge to use minority- and women-owned businesses as subcontractors—was higher than Cablevision’s offer. (Sound familiar?)

But the PACB, which had to sign off on state funding, said no, with both Bruno and Silver abstaining; the latter looked askance on a project that would compete with his Lower Manhattan district.

Lobbyists and contributions

New York has more registered lobbyists per legislator—18 to 1—than any state in the country. In 2005, one “minor” reform passed by the Legislature requires that lobbying of state agencies be made public instead of being kept secret—which seems like a no brainer.

Lachman cites as an example the development of Brooklyn Bridge Park. In 2005, the Legislature agreed to add 360 Furman Street on the Brooklyn waterfront to the park. Why? The development team included a former aide to Pataki and a major campaign donor. The Pataki-controlled ESDC had no objection.

While state law ostensibly caps corporate donations to state and local elections at $5000 a year, many companies have subsidiaries give money--an issue that's cropped up in the current race for Attorney General. Moreover, because there’s no central databank for local contributions around the state, many companies circumvent this by giving locally and often.

Reform moves

In 2004, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University called the legislature the country’s worst, significantly citing the absence of a real committee system to develop bills and to oversee administrative agencies. It led in 2005 to what Lachman describes as “modest” and “even regressive” reforms. More recently, Spitzer has called for a general accounting office to monitor the budget process.

Here are some of Lachman’s recommended reforms
--sweeping campaign finance reform
--term limits for legislators
--no more special budget allocations from “three men in a room”
--transparency for “member items,” which are supposed to serve community needs rather than the agenda of legislative leaders
--nonpartisan redistricting
--a permanent nonpartisan ethics commission
--a limit of at most a dozen public authorities, with the functions of the rest incorporated into the state budget, plus a nonpartisan commission to oversee the authorities
--equal resources for legislators, regardless of party
--an independent budget office.

How to get there? Spitzer has mentioned some of these things, but, to read Lachman, it can’t be done from the inside. He advocates a constitutional convention, basically to blow up the government. Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who has conducted some aggressive reviews of public authorities, has called a constitutional convention “a risk worth taking” but also suggested a set of constitutional amendments sent to the voters.

Brennan Center redux

The Brennan Center recently issued a report card:
Two years after its landmark report on the New York State Legislature, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law has concluded that the legislative process is “still broken” and remains in need of reform. In a new report, Unfinished Business: New York State Legislative Reform 2006 Update, the Brennan Center concludes that rank and file members of the state legislature, as well as the general public, are left out of the legislative process leaving all New Yorkers underserved.

Among the problems:
--Few standing committee hearings devoted to a specific piece of major legislation;
--No detailed committee reports attached to major bills;
--Next to impossible for bills to reach the chamber floor for a vote without the approval of leadership;
--Neither house voted down a single bill on the floor;
--Little floor debate on major legislation; and
--Very few conference committees to resolve differences between bills passed by the Assembly and the Senate.

Unfinished Business makes four recommendations that are critical to reforming the legislative process:
--Strengthen the committee process by creating mechanisms for rank-and-file members to force hearings and votes on bills;
--End leadership control over bills getting the floor by creating a mechanism for rank-and-file members to force floor votes;
--Institutionalize conference committees; and
--Codify fair, objective criteria for allotting resources and staff to members and committees.

Lachman says much of the same, and more.


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