JANUARY 11, 2009
ALBANY’S ILLS ARE KILLING UPSTATE N.Y.
By DONN ESMONDE
To the surprise of no one, the state retained its claim to the title of most messed-up government in the nation. New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice last week updated its 2004 report, which said we had the nation’s most dysfunctional legislature.
As if we did not know. We live with the consequences of Albany’s three-man dictatorship and those they serve in return for mass doses of campaign cash. Our faces are rubbed daily in the residue: Job-killing taxes. Business-discouraging rules. The continued exodus from prosperity-barren upstate. No wonder “I Love New York” is not on anybody’s ring tone.
The state’s three-man rule is not some polite parlor game. It drives up the cost of everything from public health [Medicaid] to police. It pads public payrolls and fuels overly generous public worker pensions. It kills jobs, it damages communities, it forces people to pull up their roots and leave family and friends.
Other than that, it works just fine.
Three men — the governor, Democratic Assembly leader Shelly Silver and Senate head Malcolm Smith (replacing longtime Republican fixture Joe Bruno) — make the laws and decide how tax dollars get spent. They put the legion of special interests that feed them campaign cash — ranging from pharmaceutical companies to insurance firms, from trial lawyers to the teachers union — ahead of our interests.
They get away with it by neutering the 212 state legislators (18 of them from Western New York) who should be watching our backs with a carrot-or-stick system that rewards subservience and punishes independence.
“If you vote the way leadership wants you to, you can hold your seat virtually for life,” said Seymour Lachman in a recent phone interview.
Lachman knows. The former state legislator’s recent book, “Three Men in a Room,” peels the cover off of Albany’s festered core.
Any legislator who bucks the party leader is punished. Discipline ranges from a smaller office and fewer staffers to denial of a paycheck-padding, no-show committee seat to cuts to the six-figure stash of tax dollars given to most legislators — in what amounts to legalized vote-buying — to hand out to favored groups. Repeat offenders risk losing their $80,000-per-year part-time jobs. Irate leadership will redraw maverick legislators’ districts to include more opposing-party voters, or run party-backed candidates against them.
“I was told I could rise to the top or sink to the bottom, depending on whether I voted the way leadership wanted me to,” recalled Lachman, a professor at Wagner College who left Albany in 2005.
Rewards for go-along legislators range from paycheck-padding committee slots to districts packed with same-party voters that ensure re-election, no matter how disgusted taxpayers get. The rewards buy what Lachman called “a lockstep political subservience” that turns legislators into “puppets.”
The neutering of legislators comes at the cost of democracy. Power lies not with elected representatives but with an army of special-interest lobbyists.
“The lobbyists give tons of [campaign donations],” said Lachman. “They are the ones who push the buttons of the [party] leaders.”
Special interests are served by the three rulers, often at the expense of the greater good, in return for campaign cash.
“Democrats get money from the trial lawyers, Republicans from the medical associations, and both parties get funds from the service workers [SEIU] and the teachers union,” Lachman said. “That is how the game is played.”
It is enough to make countless people leave upstate in disgust.
Oh, that’s right. They already have.