The VIEW FROM ALBANY

Dear Neighbors,

This column offers a monthly commentary on events in Albany from that of a (now relatively) new assemblyman. I hope it engenders a dialogue in person and in print that will advance the changes needed in making New York State a better partner in solving the serious problems we face in the current day.

George Latimer
NY Assemblyman 91st District

Monthly Views:

 

Summer Homework on Environmental Bills

(August 9, 2007) Summertime, and the livin' is easy - so sang the cast of Porgy and Bess. Vacations and family pursuits are paramount - and with good reason. After August comes September with back to school realities. So this is the month to kick back and forget about things, at least for a while. But as with every school vacation, there is also homework: a checklist of issues to review in our efforts in Albany to improve the environment. It's a perfectly good assignment when you are lolling on the beach or up at the lake enjoying the very environment we need to protect.

Doing our homework, as citizens, means reading about the specifics of policy choices - what proposals have been advanced, and who is standing up for what policy and who isn't. It's far too easy to dismiss the whole of governance as merely "politics" as if there is no philosophy behind the positions we advocate. The fact is that there are differences in philosophy - it's not all just cynical gamesmanship. Let me highlight a very specific set of Albany environmental bills that I think (and I hope you think) would better protect the environment:

Climate Change Solutions Act/Solutions Fund (A.7365 and A.7366): The Assembly passed two bills which establishes a framework for state spending along with a dedicated fund to decrease the impacts of climate change, i.e. global warming, and increase energy efficiency and clean energy generation. The Senate leadership has not acted on these bills.

Wetlands Protection Act (A.7133): The bill passed the Assembly and extends state regulation to wetland parcels under 12.4 acres in size, potentially preventing improper development along coasts and on inland parcels which help filter our water. The Senate leadership has not acted on this bill.

The Burn Barrel Ban (A.5457): The Assembly passed this bill which would prohibit open burning of solid waste - still a practice in parts of the state - targeting cleaner air quality and less air pollution. The Senate leadership has not acted on this bill.

Article X Power Plant Siting (A.8697): The Assembly's bill that re-establishes rules for the siting of new power plants takes into account the important need for a complete analysis of environmental concerns when such plants are proposed - essential for protecting water and air quality. The Senate bill differs in this and other key areas - you read both versions and determine which one best protects the environment.

The Community Preservation Act (A.7333): The Assembly passed a statewide plan to allow local communities, by referendum, to establish a fund for parkland acquisition and protection; the Senate leadership has not acted on that bill. Both houses have passed a Hudson Valley regional equivalent, sponsored by Assemblyman Adam Bradley and Senator Vincent Leibell, which is awaiting gubernatorial approval.

The Bigger, Better Bottle Bill (A.8044): The expansion of the 5-cent deposit on beverages to include ice tea, juice and water products would reduce litter and increase recycling of these materials substantially. The Assembly voted for the bill in 2006 and approved of it as part of the governor's budget bill, before Senate leadership deleted it from the final budget.

Every one of these bills has opponents who will argue their reasons against bill passage. Each bill, however, has the strong support of the statewide environmental community - Environmental Advocates, The Sierra Club, New York League of Conservation Voters. Don't take my word for it: as Casey Stengel said "you could look it up" on the web (at www.assembly.state.ny.us - Quick Bill Search).
There's your homework assignment.

Nearly every bill has received bi-partisan support from Assembly Democrats, Assembly Republicans, Senate Democrats and some brave Senate Republicans.  Every one, however, has stalled in the face of the disagreement by the Senate leadership. If you don't do your homework as a citizen - if you don't know what the pending issues are, who supports them and who doesn't - how can you properly evaluate whether there is dysfunction in Albany, or actually, deep disagreement over the direction and purpose of state government?

Benjamin Franklin once described our form of government as "a republic - if you can keep it." We keep our republic by an informed citizenry taking the time to understand the specifics of legislation, not bemoaning generic "gridlock." And, I hasten to add, we keep our republic when a dutiful press goes beyond the headline of "dysfunction" and analyzes for the citizenry the underlying policy disagreements and assesses - on merit - which policy compromises are worth making and which ones are not.

As only one area of public policy debate, a cleaner environment will come when we are brutally honest about all the hard policy choices at hand, not just the fashionable news clip of the moment. So, enjoy your vacation - but do your summertime homework.

See you in September!

Candid Cameras:
Why We Need Cameras in New York Courtrooms

(July 12, 2007) When we read the George Orwell novel 1984 at whatever point in time we were in high school or college, the actual year 1984 seemed a long way off. Now it is nearly 25 years in the rear-view mirror. Just like the Prince song, "1999", date-specific information can seem archaic because dates come and go. But the fear of a government that curtails civil liberties and becomes all-intrusive on individual behavior still remains a real fear for many Americans. Interestingly, the fear was originally of a left-wing, socialistic tyranny that took away personal freedoms. Now, in 2007, we can consider whether such fear is as likely from the right-wing, as ideologues of all stripes feel they can best determine what is best for everyone.

Therefore, when I write in praise of bringing the omnipresent TV camera into New York courtrooms (again), the fear of Big Brother is clear and understood. Allowing TV coverage, i.e. "cameras" in the courtroom, was a test applied through 1997 that was not renewed. Interpretation of the success or limitations of that initiative generally depend on what your role in the courtroom was. Trial lawyers did not like them - they were concerned they could affect the way their clients were treated. Some witnesses and jurors prefer the relative anonymity that comes from avoiding the TV camera. Some judges were concerned as well.

As a non-lawyer, non-judge, non-juror, non-witness, non-defendant, I think cameras are important in the courtroom, under strict guidelines, to provide an insight into how the judicial system works in the real world, not in the reel world of Law & Order or any of the other crime/law dramas. Everyday people have little to no exposure to the system and develop some opinions of what happens based on the handful of worst-case scenarios: the Anna Nicole Smith case judge who carried on while on the bench; the remembrances of the O.J. Simpson trial; or the William Kennedy Smith trial that introduced us to the "Blue Dot" that covered the main witness's face. In these few high-profile cases, the courtroom can become a three-ring circus. The press coverage will be there for such cases regardless; the cameras offer the opportunity to show what actually occurs inside the courtroom - oftentimes, much less incendiary that the second-hand and third-hand descriptions that follow the actual trial day in the corridors and on the steps of the courthouse.

While it is an imperfect analogy, I had the opportunity to bring cameras into the Westchester County Board of Legislators for the first time in the summer of 1998 to televise meetings gavel-to-gavel. Beforehand, some were concerned that legislators showboating or behaving inappropriately would give a negative impression of the institution. In actual experience, televised meetings made the humdrum reality of legislative meetings seem less exciting; people did less, not more showboating. They knew they were being watched, and they performed with greater sobriety and poise than expected. While I hear the claims that judges and lawyers will play to the camera if the camera is in the courtroom, I don't think the percentage will rise or drop any more than normal over time. The few who act up will be seen by many people, and I doubt the court administration will long tolerate unprofessional behavior from any source.

In this case, it isn't Big Brother - one all-seeing government eye - that will be watching; it will be We the People, with all of our opinions and prejudices, taking stock of the third branch of government, the judiciary and the judicial system. It would be a candid - and welcomed - look for us all.

A Day Late and a Dollar Short


The 2007-08 New York State budget has been approved by the Legislature after a process quite different from what we've experienced in the recent past. For 20 consecutive years, the budget was LATE - very late at times, up to four months late. For the past two years - my first two on the job in the Assembly - we made the midnight March 31st deadline. This time, it was a little late - 11 hours late. By midnight, we had passed about 9 of the 12 pieces - but the big ones lay ahead: education and health care. So rather than sit bleary-eyed at mounds of paper until 3 am, and by 11 am. had a functionally on-time budget that was – “a day late.”

To explain the "dollar short" takes more time than any column allows. There was unalloyed good news in the budget - the full restoration of municipal aid to Larchmont Village, Mamaroneck Town and Rye Brook, for one. Also, on the plus side, there will be property tax rebates coming this fall for homeowners and property taxpayers; a new foundation formula for school aid was created providing a future model for rational funding; some cuts were made to the explosion of growth in Medicaid costs; staffing was approved to supervise environmental needs, such as wetlands and waterways, in the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Parks Departments.

The budget did a number of things that some people like and some people do not: added funds for stem cell research; expanded charter schools; eliminated plans for a tuition tax credit for parents of private and parochial schoolchildren; killed plans to expand the 5 cents “bottle bill” to cover iced tea, water and sports drinks (it already covers soda and beer). Each of these issues is a column unto itself, framing out the proponents and opponents, and assessing whether we did the right thing or not.

But the budget did one thing that set Westchester Assembly members of both parties on edge; granting huge High Tax Aid to Long Island school communities and ignoring Westchester's similar needs. I was able to protect the needs of Port Chester's school district (it has the most demographic need along the Sound Shore) and provide some aid assistance to Mamaroneck, Rye Neck and Rye districts - fairly small amounts above the Save Harmless formula. However, L.I.'s powerful senators held out for huge sums of high-tax aid, and got it into the budget. Westchester reps all voted "NO" on the Education budget to show our protest. We are working now, under the leadership of Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, to meet to reallocate some necessary support to our districts. At the moment, we are not happy with the outcome.

As much as we want to bring objectivity into decision-making, we all know the human element matters. The political strength of some - through seniority, regional power, relationships, whatever - will shape the end result. It happens in every form of endeavor, from academia and the board room to the PTA meeting and the Little League.

The process for this state budget was more closed than in the past, but we will push for it to become more open and transparent. We will push for fair state aid. One budget is not the end of the fight for a reformed government.

We will take and appreciate the successes; we will try to change the things that didn't work.

Democracy is an art, not a science. It’s an art to be practiced but – realistically - never to be perfected. This time, a day late, a dollar short.



Of Kings and Princes

Every form of government known to mankind has an executive. There are monarchies, passed down from king to crown prince (and occasionally, but rarely),  to a princess who becomes ruling queen). There are religious fiefdoms, ruled by ayatollahs or imams. There are the premiers, the prime ministers, the presidents and their local cousins: governors, county executives and mayors. Sometimes, the Army general leads a military takeover and then leads the country; sometimes, it's a rebellion that brings in Communism, and the secretary of the Communist Party to rule. Whatever they may be called, there are always kings - individuals who exert the central power of the entity, whether through election, or armaments, by fear or faith or popular mandate.

There are not always legislatures.

It is a Western development to insure the men and women of the jurisdiction should elect localized representatives to make decisions in some balance with the executive. The Parliaments, Knessets, or Village Board of Trustees, exert the power to create laws, levy taxes, authorize public spending. In fact, there are three core duties of any legislature: 1) pass laws and budgets; 2) provide constituent services; 3) serve as a check and balance on the executive.

Legislatures are, by definition, arenas where issues are debated  and power is diffused by geography, and perhaps, by demography. People come from all parts of the nation, or the state, or the county, town or village to grapple with difficult issues in a difficult environment where no one legislator wields ultimate authority. Legislatures are meant to be slow, deliberative bodies. This is where the disagreements of the society are on display, each with supporters advocating on their behalf. And lacking one singular voice, legislatures are slow to move ahead.

The executives can move with speed; they have no one they must share power with in the executive chambers. They can be the Colossus of Rhodes, standing astride the entity, granting beneficence and issuing punishments as they see fit. They make the "big" decisions: from deciding war/peace to presenting budgets that either fund or starve for funds different groups. The legislator is small-time: accessible to the average person; working on a scale sufficient to connect with a smaller electorate on a more personal basis. The executive has resources at fingertip: experts on policy; available resources; the ability to attract media attention nearly instantly. The legislator operates with a slim team at best, people committed to that individual legislator, generally overworked and underpaid.

The process to become the executive is always a harder road than to win a legislative seat; the personality, quirks, preferences of the executive can be blown up to a bigger-than-life persona, in some cases. Legislators toil in relative anonymity, until a crisis breaks. The political resources it takes to become president or governor provide the winner with the resources that help focus energies towards policies. Most legislators long after the central attention given  to the executive; sometimes, an executive can long for the faceless anonymity of the legislator. The legislator may or may not appear on a night of tragedy to a police officer, or at a crisis when a sewer pipe breaks -the executive must be there.

Every knows that the legislature - with more people, bubbling energy, ambitious men and women - can thwart the will of the best executive; and similarly, an individual legislator's power base or agenda can die a swift death in the executive's powerful hands.

And we need 'em both.

One must check the other; the other must balance the former. We don't want tyranny, we don't want mob-ocracy. We want a productive balancing of powers and duties, with the most important thing being effective governance. We fall in love with the popular executive; we deeply hate the unpopular one. The faceless members of the legislature, through good year and bad, hardly register a blip on the screen.

If our American democracy is to thrive in the years to come, it will take the proper harnessing of energy and enthusiasm to the skills of deliberation with grassroots sensibilities. It will take presidents and Congress members, governors and assemblymen and mayors and councilmen to acknowledge each other and their respective political needs and agendas if we are to build the trust that is so essential to good public policy.

We need kings...and princes, too.

 

"Day One" -- What Changed?

American politics is filled with anecdotes and stories about past campaigns - the battles, the events, the debates and the political slogans. When the era is far removed from the present day, the slogans seem dated and irrelevant: "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too"; "54'40 or Fight". But the slogans do represent a snapshot in time - what was important in that day and era, summarized in a pithy line. Such, then, is the most recent campaign slogan of wide note, offered by successful gubernatorial candidate (now Governor) Eliot Spitzer: "Day One Everything Changes".

The "Day One" line is based on the common belief that Albany (i.e, NY State government) is broken, needs to be fixed, needs to be changed dramatically. The Brennan Center report of July 2004 highlighted the problems - capsulized in the single word "dysfunction". While I have already addressed the issue of Dysfunction vs. Disagreement in an earlier piece, there is no question but that the procedures of State government need reform and renewal. But to understand the task ahead and its enormity, we should categorize the popular needs we hear about in public discussion, and keep track of them as separate tasks.

We want to reduce property taxes across New York State.
We want to cut our overall bonded indebtedness.
We want to improve the quality of New York City's schools and student performance.
We want to turn around the dismal upstate New York economy.
We want to improve our healthcare system, at a more reasonable cost.
We want to increase our stock of affordable housing in the expensive City and suburbs.
Transportation. Crime. Children. The environment. Homeland security. The list is seemingly endless.

And none of this improved on Day One. So was Day One a failure? Let's go from the policy to the procedures of government.

We want to create a more open government - "transparency" being the hot new word.
We want to see an end to the scandals and revelations of ethical transgressions.
We want to eliminate wasteful "pork barrel" spending.
We want to see a more open legislative process.
We want to see a more open budget process - with an on-time, balanced budget.

Why didn't all this happen on Day One?

Reading the press statewide, those who were/are skeptical of the new governor during his campaign remain skeptical. They cite each instance they can of "things being the same old same old" system. Those who were supportive of the governor highlight the specific new gubernatorial executive orders and the high quality and ability of the new appointees to the cabinet and the administration as examples of Governor Spitzer acting within his new mandate. So have things changed?

The answer is a qualified "yes".

What changed on Day One were not the complexities and the conflicts; to cut taxes and to increase school funding never happens in a day or a month. It takes time to meet, to develop relationships, to negotiate and achieve compromise and progress. What changed on Day One was the desire to change, the attitude of a new governor who engages the Senate and the Assembly in regular dialogue, and is accessible and open.

Specific steps have been made - a budget reform agreement here; work on a new ethics law there; the creation of a higher standard in the executive branch that reduces the partisan pay-to-play realities in the many departments and agencies of State government. Those small steps - such as on-going negotiations to reform the Workmen's Compensation Plan in New York (which pleases neither employers nor employees) - may bear significant fruit. But it will take time.

The hardest thing to change is cynicism. Cynicism that is deeply rooted in practical experience, spread out over 25 years, hardened through changes in governors, speakers and Senate majority leaders, and fed by the media's desire to highlight what is "news": fundamentally, the failings of our lives, not our successes. The cynicism that greeted the fall of Alan Hevesi, and feeds on every further legislative indictment, or on the release of misbegotten member items, threatens to strangle hope, however small in its first stages of life under a new administration.

But as Jesse Jackson once said, "keep hope alive."

On Day One, the attitude of the executive branch of State government changed. It set higher standards for itself, and asked people of bi-partisan demeanor to join it to advance that change. Over time, and through the battles that will be defined by our agreements and disagreements on policies, will come a sense whether the whole of New York State government has changed.

I think it will.

 

 

The Responsibility of Power

Election Day 2006 has come and gone and with it a reversal of recent fortune for most Democrats and Republicans. Twelve years ago, after the Republican tide of 1994, Republicans were able to claim enormous victories everywhere: George Pataki became the first Republican governor of New York since the 1970’s, bringing in a Republican State attorney general, larger margins in the State Senate, and reducing the Democrat’s margin in the State Assembly. Nationally, Republicans claimed the U.S. House and Senate after years of minority status; Democratic icons like Texas Governor Ann Richards lost to George W. Bush; and long term senators were beaten in a wave of discontent with the status quo. Rush Limbaugh crowed on the radio about America unshackled from the bonds of liberalism. It was quite an election night.

This past November 7th was also quite an election night. Depending on your point of view, it was either exhilarating or it was depressing.

The Outs got In; the Ins were sent Out. And if this were a Super Bowl, the winners would hold the Lombardi Trophy high, basking in glory at the press conference and heading off to Disneyland.

But government ain't sports. It is serious business. It is not merely a game of winning or losing. It is about governing. And with power comes responsibility.

You can view the 1994 and 2006 elections as the tidal flows of power, where one party wins, governs and, after a while, is replaced by the other party. You can view it as rejections by an angry electorate. 1994 was a reaction to a failed National Health Care plan and Congressional check kiting; 2006 was about Iraq and Jack (Abramoff).

The election that I remember mattering most directly to me came in

1997. Larchmont, Mamaroneck and Rye voters sent me back to the Westchester County Board of Legislators for a fourth term, but for the first time in over 90 years there was a majority of Democratic colleagues. It was a slim majority - 9 to 8 - with the 9th seat pivoting on a 39-vote margin of victory. It was the slimmest of majorities ever.

But even so slim a victory conveyed power and responsibility. I was selected by my colleagues to chair the Board in 1998, the first Democrat to do so in 9 decades (since Theodore Roosevelt was president). The accomplishments of that term and the one that followed are pretty much lost by now. We passed 4 budgets, 3 of which cut taxes; we passed good environmental legislation unanimously, and human rights legislation bi-partisanly. We passed the only redistricting plan that wasn't sued, and included members of the League of Women Voters as observers. But it's all ancient history.

There was one thing that mattered.

We governed, as a first-time majority, understanding we had a responsibility to act in a cooperative manner. Not to "get even" or pay back all the indignities that came with decades of minority status or irrelevance. Voters gave us a chance to prove we could work, as a new majority, with a new minority. Over two terms (four years), I made sure every majority Democrat and minority Republican chaired a committee - something never contemplated in prior years. Republicans passed key legislation they sponsored, as did the Democrats. We fought where we disagreed; we debated and we had a cup of coffee afterwards to acknowledge our mutual respect even as we disagreed.

In Washington, DC, and in Albany, on "Day One" everything changes. The power structures shift again - there are no permanent majorities, as much as each party seeks to play for perpetual control. But there is one constant: the desire of all Americans to see our government perform competently and fairly.

The Party's party is over. It is time to govern and to recognize the responsibility that comes with power.

 

 

The Three Faces Of New York State

I have often wondered why things seem to come in threes: in fairy tales, it's The Three Bears with Goldilocks, and The Three Little Pigs and the Wolf; races start with a three count (ready-set-go) and the musical scale is always represented as Do-Re-Mi. You learn the alphabet by your A-B-Cs; the list goes on and on (and on). Thus, it is a common habit to divide things into three parts - the left, the center, the right; yes-no-maybe. And for my purposes in analyzing New York State on the cusp of an election which will bring us a new governor, the Three Faces of New York State: The City, Upstate, The 'Burbs. Understanding the task of the next governor and the State Legislature is to understand how different these sections are; how expectations, demographics and aspirations differ from Buffalo to the Bronx to Brookhaven (L.I.).

The City

There is only one city - New York City. Eight+ million people shoe-horned into five boroughs, with a life and a style that makes it "world class" - the pride not merely of the state or even the country, but of the world. City dwellers barely acknowledge the role state government plays in their lives. They work on the national and international levels; they possess the greatest concentration of wealth, culture, media, finance, publishing, advertising, and taxicabs on the planet. For those who live in sections of the outer boroughs, and parts of Manhattan, too, they worry about street crime, but not about property taxes. They have terrific mass transit, but deteriorating public school buildings. They have the highest concentrations in the state of people of color and people who are poor. The City is the mecca for immigration in our state, despite the other pockets where immigrants may reside.

Their problems are big ones, of a size and scope that dwarfs any discussion of need anyplace else in the state. Residents know they are in a special place and cannot believe anyone would leave the City to move upstate (i.e., Westchester!) and lose the 24/7 energy of the City. New York City is as close to a city-state as the U.S.A. possesses - not counting, of course, Washington, D.C.

The 'Burbs

The refugees who left the City, in one generation or another, have swollen the hamlets of Long Island and the Hudson Valley into a megalopolis in its own right. Over 3 million on L.I. and another 2 million in the Hudson Valley create a state-within-a-state that is like New Jersey and Connecticut in size and feel, but still smaller than the other two parts of New York State. From Montauk to Middletown, with Mamaroneck in the middle, suburbanites enjoy the safest streets and the highest economy and home values, and pay the highest property taxes. As a region, our schools outperform everyone else, as do our school taxes. Upstaters often see us as spoiled little rich kids - and City dwellers see us as urban escapees who take from the City vitality but do not give back our "fair share" to the running of the City. We have lots of smaller governments, and we seem to like it that way, where police, fire and sanitation services are delivered by people we know. We join forces with the City in caring about mass transit, but we part company by running small, lean local governments without big bureaucracies. In the classic Upstate-Downstate paradigm, we are the same as City people to the Upstaters, and we are Upstaters to the City people.

Upstate

Traveling north to Albany, and then in a circuitous route from there to Glens Falls, Ticonderoga, Lake Placid, Tupper Lake, Watertown, Syracuse, Auburn, Ithaca, Corning, Elmira, Owego, Binghamton, Hancock (never made it as far west as Buffalo or Rochester), one sees hundreds and hundreds of small towns and communities, most hanging on economically by a thread, with a far better remembrance of yesterday than a belief in the promise of tomorrow. The economy - the businesses and jobs - of Upstate is in crisis, and crisis is the dominant feeling wherever one goes. There is resentment of the wealth and privilege found down in the City and the Burbs; there is a sense of Upstate being forgotten, unheard in the corridors of power. There is the sense of being misunderstood and even consciously ignored. They see their problems as simple and unaddressed: we need jobs so our people can live and thrive here. Despite the first strike of brutally cold winter weather, Upstate was once the United States' most innovative, energetic core for manufacturing, agriculture and industry. Gloves from Gloversville; rugs from Amsterdam; every town had its dominant industry. Now, except for college students in Ithaca, racing enthusiasts in Saratoga, and prisons wherever they may be, Upstate is starving and thirsty for jobs - and for hope.

These are the three faces of the state we live in. When we advance an idea from our Sound Shore suburban perspective to protect the watershed of L.I. Sound, we hear opposition from business interests upstate that assert more jobs will be lost. From the City, we hear uninterested silence as voters there don't place environment issues high on their lists. When Upstate talks about cutting labor costs, the City fights to avoid sacrificing hard-won gains for working men and women of labor. And so it goes.

The next governor and the Legislature needs structural reform, and plenty of it, but do not be deceived. The greatest need in Albany is to build political will to act on behalf of all three sections of New York, in the face of sure regional interests at war with each other and the partisan desire to make political hay out of that conflict. Gridlock ensues when legislators veto any idea that doesn't directly benefit their home sections or that costs their section money and/or attention.

We will need the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, and the charisma of David to untie this three-part knot that wraps around the throat of our state government.

 

Move the Primaries To June

Another primary season has come and gone - and it appears almost as a passage in the night. People were on vacation for Labor Day weekend, the last weekend of the summer. Students went off to college, smaller kids went back to school. Communities took full measure of the moment to remember those lost on 9/11. Our attention was directed in so many different pursuits. And over 80% of us, registered Republicans and Democrats alike failed to make it to the polls for the primary on September 12th.

Was it the importance of the posts contested? Hardly. Republican voters selected their candidate for the U.S. Senate, and for Congress in central Westchester, and their assemblyman in the northern tier of the county. Democrats chose their candidates for governor, U.S. senator, attorney general, Congress in two of the three districts, State Senate in Mt. Vernon. These are all important, impactful posts - candidates chosen by a fraction of the electorate.

There are many reasons for poor voter turnout, but for my purposes here I choose to select the one that matters most on Primary Day: holding primary elections in September. They should be held in June.

As noted, the first two weeks of September are the time when people shift back from summertime mode to "normal" work and school mode. It is unrealistic to expect a significant portion of our people to focus on the critical choices at hand. Unless you're an incumbent politician - because September primaries are, at their core, an Incumbent Protection Plan.

The name recognition of incumbents  - their governmental mailings, not to mention the fund-raising advantage and campaign mailings - dwarf what most challengers can match. Late primaries allow precious little time for the primary challenger or the general election challenger of the opposite party to mount a credible campaign. Excepting cases of immense personal wealth, scandal or the rare overarching public issue, incumbents at every level benefit from the September primary date where they have a significant advantage over their primary challenger or their general election opponent.

Placing primaries back in June - as was once New York's custom - allows for a primary campaign conducted during the months of April and May, where good weather prevails, schools are in session, and people are more engaged in normal day-to-day living. Resolving the primaries in mid-June allows for all party's nominees to plan their best campaign for the fall on a more equal basis. And the provisions that generally stop the use of public funded mailings and literature 60 days before Primary Day will then kick in earlier - by mid-April - creating a more level playing field for the competition ahead.

During my career in city and county government, I have had the opportunity to craft provisions to improve public notice, place public sessions on cable TV, allow for night-time meetings where citizens can attend, and other open government initiatives. I firmly believe re-establishing the June primary date will increase primary voter participation, and allow for a more competitive general election campaign to follow.

The challenge is getting incumbents, who benefit from the status quo, to agree to give up their September benefit.

 

 

Primary Colors: Don't Forget to Vote September 12

It's the "Dog Days of August,” although I don't know why that phrase seems pejorative; I happen to love my dog, Oreo, and all dog owners feel the same way about their pet pooches. But we don't love the Dog Days very much. The streets of our communities are pretty empty as we head out of town for the last vacation-time of summer. It's a time when we shut out everything else until September. Come September, we'll be back in school, back to a regular office schedule; civic groups and PTAs will meet regularly again, and we'll rejoin the regular day-to-day pace we left behind in June.

But when we return to business as usual, many of us miss something very important that comes on us almost immediately - the Primary Elections on Tuesday, September 12th. On that day, New York's registered Democrats will go to their local polling places and vote for their candidates for governor and attorney general, and Republicans will go to vote for their candidate for U.S. senator. It's a very important - and often forgotten - task.

Here's the scorecard of Primary Colors:

DEMOCRATS

U.S. Senator. Incumbent Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton faces a primary challenge from Jonathan Tasini, a Manhattan-based union organizer. The November opponent will be the winner of the Republican Senate primary.

New York State Governor: Current state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is running for governor as the designated candidate of the New York State Democratic Convention (held in May). He is being challenged by Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi. The primary winner faces Republican John Faso in the November election.

New York State Attorney General: Four candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination, including Convention-designated Andrew Cuomo, former HUD Secretary; former NYC Public Advocate Mark Green; lawyer Charlie King; and lawyer Sean Maloney. Former Westchester County D.A. Jeannine Pirro, the Republican candidate, will face off against the primary winner in November.

REPUBLICANS

U.S. Senator: Republican voters will pick between former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer - the Republican Convention designee - and Katherine "K.T." McFarland a former Pentagon official in the Reagan Administration, in the contest to select the person who will go up against winner of the Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Jonathan Tasini.


When you're on the beach, or relaxing by the pool on these last few Dog Days, read up on the candidates, their positions and statements. In the week after Labor Day, we'll no doubt see plenty of TV ads and receive direct mail pieces about each. Plan on making a firm date to visit your local polling booth on Tuesday, September 12th, and make your preference known.

See you in September!

 

 

Global Warning

(July 21, 2006) It was in 1964, I think, when the U.S. Surgeon General first raised the specter of health hazards associated with smoking. In those days, smoking was an essential part of adult life; as an 11-year old, I remember me and all my friends pretending we were smoking with candy cigarettes, pencils, whatever. My dad, Stan, smoked, and my mom, Loretta, smoked. And then came the Surgeon General's warning. Stan stopped, almost immediately. Loretta didn't. She kept smoking.

In those days, there were ads of the doctors who smoked, endorsing the habit. There were competing arguments by different medical experts - it was bad; it was OK. In 1964, who really knew?

Over time, science trumped political science. We discovered, slowly, but surely that smoking was directly linked to heart disease, emphysema and lung cancer. Science told us that second-hand smoke was dangerous. The "warning" of 1964, after 40 years, became an acknowledged fact.

Ultimately, the society, the government, took action to discourage smoking.

Stan stopped. He lived to be 83.

Loretta did not; she smoked until age 69, when she had a severe angina attack. Then she finally stopped. But it was too late. She died at age 74. Nine years difference. Nine fewer years of my Mom in my life.

It is said that those who tell us that global warming is a threat to our world - triggered by the continual increase in greenhouse gases from power plants, cars, etc., - are alarmists and radicals. Some tell us that our world can absorb the economic expansion of China and India, joining Japan, Europe and North America, and that the exponential increase in the use of fossil fuels will not generate the melting of Arctic or Antarctic ice, the rise in the ocean sea level and so forth. Perhaps we are alarmists who think that we must better control our air quality and shape the development of our world before we face serious, if not disastrous consequences.

Perhaps global warming is as serious as they say. Perhaps not. But we have been given a global warning. We can ignore it if we choose, arguing the difference between science and political science. Or we can take the warning seriously.

If she really knew for sure in 1964 about smoking, would Loretta have treated that warning like Stan did?

Nine lost years is what I have to show for that sad circumstance. As painful and as great as those stakes are to me and my sister, the stakes of a poor choice on global warming are so much higher. Let us choose wisely.

 

 

Terror Firmer

(June 15, 2006) Of all the responsibilities governments have, the first, fundamental one is to insure the public peace and security. From our national military to our local police departments, we recognize that the benefits of a free society are impossible to enjoy if there is mayhem on our streets. For many reasons - our heritage and traditions, our societal affluence and natural resources, our good fortune - we have lived in a land where the horrors of war, and domestic upheaval are limited chapters in our history, rather than the on-going reality of everyday living. Consider the constant turmoil of sub-Saharan Africa, or the political instabilities of parts of Asia, and South America, or the grinding poverty of certain Caribbean countries. Contrast that with a pleasant Sunday afternoon spent strolling in Manor Park or watching kids play at Flint Park. We are truly a nation blessed.

Therefore, our post-9/11 world has been an adjustment. That some of our friends and neighbors commuted to their daily jobs that September morning in Manhattan and became names etched on a monument for all time as the first major casualties of domestic terrorism has changed the way we think about security. Absent a second horrific act in nearly five years, we can lull ourselves into thinking that moment was a "one-shot deal," an aberration not to be repeated. We can be convinced, if we choose to be, by rhetoric that says, "We'll fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here." But no matter how good the offense of New York's football Giants or baseball's Mets and Yankees may be, they plan and invest in defense as well. It is no different as we seek true "homeland security." We must work as diligently in preventing the next act of terrorism here - and plan for how we will respond quickly and effectively should that horror be visited on us again, in perhaps, a new and different manner.

No one knows where or when the next act will occur. We can be sure those who murdered our neighbors that day still seek to inflict additional pain and suffering on America. In suburban Cincinnati. In a shopping mall in Houston. In a ballpark in Seattle. Wherever they can find the opportunity to strike. So far, our forces have intercepted those thrusts, so we have not descended into fear and daily madness, as seen in the streets of Baghdad. But we prevent terror on our piece of terra firma by investing in a wide range of things - and it is foolish to think a "flawed" application from New York City or Washington, D.C. (if in fact it was flawed) is sufficient reason to dis-invest in America's two most tempting targets.

Every day Larchmont and Westchester at-large work as a community because so many of us head for the train into Manhattan. We rely on security at Grand Central Station, on the #6 train to Wall Street or on the Times Square Shuttle, when we take a client to lunch at Rockefeller Center, or when a Larchmont friend visits a museum in the afternoon. We are deeply, inextricably invested in New York's security: at JFK or LaGuardia; at Shea or Yankee Stadium; crossing the George Washington or Whitestone Bridges.

We should all react with outrage at a national government that rejects full and fair protection for New York City. The funding of New York City on-going expenses - manpower/overtime costs, supplies - are not a rip-off of federal funds; it is the on-going costs of insuring daily protection. We spend money every single day in Iraq and Afghanistan, not just the up-front costs to displace the governments of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but the everyday costs of  patrolling these two countries. How do we turn around and reject our two major cities' requests for operating funds to provide day-to-day protection against probable threats?

Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg stated that the Civil War "tested whether any nation so conceived could long endure." John F. Kennedy at his inaugural spoke about "a long twilight struggle against the enemies of mankind." Both acknowledged, in their day, the true sacrifice required, on a daily basis, to address long term matters. It remains for this Congress and this president to acknowledge that we are in a long twilight struggle here in the homeland as well, testing our resolve to  protect our citizens against a threat that may be present every day for the rest of our lives.

 

The National Pastime: Budgeting

(May 11, 2006) Each spring - and sometimes well into the summer - Albany plays its favorite pastime: The Budget Game. It begins when the NFL playoffs are on full speed in January, and until 2005 and 2006, wasn't resolved until the August pennant races in Major League Baseball. I've had two years to be a part of the contest, perhaps the best two years in recent memory. Both this year and last, we actually completed the legislative review of the budget on time at March 31st, after 20 consecutive years of failure. But even if the results are somewhat better, it's still the old ballgame.

1st Inning: The Governor Presents the Proposed Budget.

Governor Pataki, over the last 12 years with much fanfare, captures all eyes in Albany twice in January - once for the State of the State message on the first Wednesday after New Year's Day, and ten days later when he presents the Executive Budget. At this point, all is thematic - broad brush strokes of policy. The ideas are scripted for press coverage...before the detailed scrutiny comes in.

2nd Inning: The Assembly & Senate Try a New Pitch or Two in Early Budget Review.

Throughout late January and February, legislators, reporters, activists, lobbyists start combing through the budget with a fine-tooth comb, to discern the good and bad news hidden in the budget. I prepare for an early March public hearing in the district; groups from nursing home operators to soccer moms all reach out to influence me and my colleagues on elements of the budget - usually adding more money to something they think is important.

3rd Inning: Joint Conference Committees In Public & Heavy-Lifting By The Staffs.


By early March, leaders of the legislature have put their teams together to make plans for the compromises needed to pass the budget on time. First, in early March, each house passes its own budget, with differences between them.  Each budget meets the needs its majority senses among its constituents. Now is when the heavy lifting begins.

4th Inning: The Legislature Adopts the On-Time Budget.

You'd think this would be the end of the story - right? Not really. Two-plus weeks of intense haggling and furious back-and-forth have produced the past two on-time budgets. But there's never a guarantee of result.

5th Inning: The Empire Strikes Back - Governor Vetoes.

With his line-item pen, the governor undoes most of the legislative adds. This is where aid provided in his original budget was low, got boosted up by the Assembly/Senate combo, and is now cut back to what the governor originally wanted.

6th Inning: Return of the Jedi - The Legislature Overrides.

Lately, the Assembly and Senate open a bi-partisan battle by overriding the governor's vetoes with two-third majorities in each house, restoring for the second time what was cut by the governor the second time.

7th Inning: The Court of Public Opinion.

Affected interests and organization, media observers and writers, and everyday citizens all opine on whether they liked or didn't like the choice made by the governor and legislature, bemoaning the state of  State affairs. Notice the ads on the radio and television: "Call Governor Pataki and tell him..."

8th Inning: We Can Work It Out?

The three men meet in a room to avoid catastrophe - maybe.

9th Inning: The Real Courtroom

Off to Lawsuit City if the governor doesn't negotiate over the changes. He refuses to honor the Legislature's changes, so...see you in court.

And then, comes whatever resolution comes.

It is a kabuki dance of stylized steps, drawn primarily because of political need - someone wants to look tough; someone wants to be remembered at election time for their generosity; someone wants to get even. It is, however, no way to run a government for which school districts, villages and counties are counting on to help keep their property taxes lower.

For the moment, we're in the 8th inning - seeing if the governor and speaker and Senate majority leader can come up with an agreement or two or three. If not, we head to the 9th inning, all tied up...and getting all lawyered-up for the battle ahead.

Heckuva way to play the game.

 

Home Sweet Home Rule

(March 23, 2006) When people went to the polls this week in Larchmont to elect local officials, they did so to select the people they wanted to direct the future and fortunes of their village. After the ballots were counted, a new mayor and two trustees won and they now get to exercise authority for the next two years.. They will be held accountable for the success, or lack of success, in the community during their tenure. That is good, old-fashioned responsibility at work. But there is an exception: when "home rule" isn't in the hands of the hometown electeds.

New York State - and its 49 sister states - hold tremendous power, confirmed in the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in essence stating that all powers not specifically granted to the federal government devolve back to the states themselves. Those powers do not rest with the counties, the towns, cities or villages, the school boards, or library boards...but reside with the state government. Accordingly, as charters and codes were drafted to cover the incorporation of a village, a town, a city, or a county, it was the state that made the final determination on what powers could be granted these jurisdictions. In New York, Home Rule does not allow, for example,  a locality to un-dedicate parkland for another use without a granting of home rule authority by the state; state roadways that traverse through a community cannot be restricted with traffic devices without state approvals; the list goes on and on.

Thus, one of my jobs as the assemblyman for Larchmont and 7 other jurisdictions is to sponsor home rule legislative requests on behalf of those governments.

Here's where it gets tricky.

Requests for local laws come in all shapes and sizes: in 2005, the Village of Mamaroneck sought - and got - the ability to readjust the widows pensions for deceased police officers; Port Chester got the right to reconfigure Summerfield Park to improve traffic flow at  a difficult and confusing intersection. On the other hand, Rye City's request for a hotel occupancy tax did not pass the Senate; Rye Brook's request for on-street parking permits near the Port Chester High School failed in the Assembly. As the Rolling Stones sang, "You can't always get what you want." Most importantly, is the Assembly member or Senator from that district morally obliged to submit that request, regardless of his or her personal or political evaluation of the request?

As a citizen, if you oppose a certain act, you might say that the Town or City Council is wrong to ask for permission to go ahead with it, and you would expect your elected State representative to fight for what is "right" and not rubber-stamp what the local officials want. On the other hand, if you favor the same act, you might argue that the people have spoken through their elected local officials and the State legislator should not hold an idea hostage to his own personal wishes or politics. And of course, the two-party system assures that much of the time, one party will be in power, and the other party will be in opposition, building in a nearly-automatic countervoice to everything said by the local elected officials.

My basic philosophy, drawn from my own past experience as a councilman in Rye, is that for better or worse, at every election the voters speak. The people they elect - whether I like them or not, support them in the party political structure or not; have full confidence in them or not - represent the will of the people.  They are accountable, ultimately, for the policies they're asking me to sponsor in Albany. So when they ask for home rule consideration, it will take an extraordinary set of circumstances for me to refuse them.  Larchmont elects its own leaders; those leaders ask for something that they must defend. It is my job is to help them advance the request.

That means if a member of my own political party asks me to deny a home rule request simply because the local government majority is "across the aisle," the answer is "no."  My job isn't to advance my party's interests first, though everyone in this business must remain loyal to his team to some degree. My job is to assist the people and the community as a whole and in so doing to make the massive State structure respond to a local need. Similarly, opponents of a controversial issue cannot expect an elected State official to thwart the will of the local board's majority merely to satisfy a minority point of view. The core decision belongs to the board that does the asking; I am a conduit only to help the community - via its duly elected officials - accomplish what it deems necessary and proper.

There may be exceptions, but few and far between. When you voted this week, you empowered your candidates to run the community well. My task is to make Home Rule reflect the wishes of the people you've entrusted Home Sweet Home.

Bringing Home the "Bacon" --- Or is it "Pork"?

(February 15, 2006) A noted Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court once referred to pornography by saying, "I can't define what it is, but I know it when I see it."  The same may be said of the time-honored tradition of legislators "bringing home the bacon," that is, getting funds from higher level of government to pay for local projects. Is it "bacon" or just "pork" - wasteful spending that skirts true priorities to satisfy a small constituency somewhere? I guess we know it when we see it.

"The Bridge in Alaska" is the most recent example referred to as a pork project at the federal government level. (This was a bridge linking to a small island in Alaska, population 50, which Sen. Ted Stevens negotiated into an appropriations bill and fought hard to defend.) Standing on the corner of the Boston Post Road and Chatsworth Avenue, it sure seems like pork to us. Why should "our" tax dollars go to some distant outpost for an expensive project that benefits so few? Clearly, that's pork.

However, back on that Larchmont corner, there are some projects I'm working on in Albany to fund in total or in part, that seem to me, and to many of our Larchmont neighbors, as "bacon," a worthwhile expenditure to solve a local problem. 

Funds to fix the tunnel under the Larchmont Metro-North station.

In the battle between the Thruway Authority and the Village, I side with the Village. I toured the tunnel - it needs capital repair, and the impact on Village property taxpayers seems burdensome and unfair. The State should fund all or most of the work, and the Village can then maintain it. The people who use the tunnel are not only Village residents, but those from the Town of Mamaroneck - and some nearby New Rochelleans who commute from Larchmont.

Sound Barriers

I also think it's worthwhile for the State Thruway Authority to pay for sound barriers along the corridor in Larchmont. People who live on Woodland need noise relief, and the noise can be heard up on Cliff Way and Serpentine and on Concord, too. The Authority has sprung for barriers in other places, and it should take care of Larchmont, too.

Pine Brook

And the State, in my judgment, has a financial role to play in the correction of long-standing flooding problems in Pine Brook. This problem, which bedevils homeowners, has an impact on the water quality in the L.I. Sound. The costs for corrections are huge hits to the Village budget; a cooperative project including State funds seems only right. Is this all pork?

Perhaps. But I will argue in Albany that people have an impression of Larchmont, (and Rye, and Rye Brook, and Mamaroneck Town - all in my district) that every man, woman and child who lives here is a zillionaire. Any need we may have is automatically and forever subordinate to the needs of other places in the State that are far less fortunate. The economy is in free-fall disaster in parts of Upstate; New York City residents worry over the quality of their schools. These are indeed real problems. But the crushing burden of property taxes is real, too, even to those whose incomes are significant. After all, the people of Larchmont are contributing far more to the economy and tax rolls of New York State than they ask for in return.

It isn't pork to expect that some of Larchmonters' state income tax and state sales tax dollars are reinvested in this village for necessary projects (may I note each one is a capital project with a long-term lifespan - not just funding an operation for a year or two).

To someone on a street corner in Batavia or in Bensonhurst, a commuter tunnel in Larchmont may be just like a bridge in Alaska. I'll vote to help Batavia's farmers, and Bensonhurst's tenants. But I think it's acceptable to expect the State to be Larchmont's partner, too - on a tunnel, on flooding, on sound barriers.

It ain't pork. It's being a partner. That's bringing home the bacon.

 

Little Steps, Big Steps

(January 3, 2006) Any parent who has raised children to adulthood knows that there are many moments in life when a child is taking a major step forward: toddling across the living room floor; going off to school; the first time driving a car; graduation day; wedding day; the day they become a parent (and you become a grandparent). There are First Communions and Bar Mitzvahs in our religious traditions; the first time at bat in a Little League game, and the first ballet recital. Every step is important. Some steps are little steps. Some steps are big steps. They all matter.

In matters of public affairs, there are also little steps and big steps, and they, too, matter - all of those steps. One year ago, in January 2005, the thought of an on-time state budget seemed like a huge step in the right direction for a state government considered dysfunctional and incapable of such a step for 20 years. Many thought it impossible. The idea that certain reforms - tracking lobbying for those seeking awarded contracts ("procurement lobbying")  in the same way we track those who lobby elected officials, or making independent public authorities more accountable - would be big steps in 2005, given the absolute utter lack of progress for the decade before. Most who cared enough to look despaired of seeing the Assembly, the Senate and the governor ever come together on tougher laws for those who would assault or murder a police officer, or to tighten up on gun trafficking. Yet all of those things and more happened in 2005. Big steps, indeed.

Now, in retrospect, some commentators say they were only "little" steps. As some matters get resolved - interstate wine imports, funding for libraries and environmental protection - many more remain unresolved. And those that are unresolved, those that cry out for answers, comprise the substantial list of unfinished business for Albany in 2006.

The list is long, and important: rooting out Medicaid fraud; establishing a system to deal with repeat sex offenders and other violent predators; better funding for our schools that rely less on local property taxes; controlling New York's tremendous bonded indebtedness; advancing structural reform in our executive and legislative systems; improving the upstate economy. And that doesn't even scratch the surface.

Yet, it is intellectually dishonest to only place the list of unmet needs before us, while purposefully failing to recognize the striking changes -and improvements - that happened in 2005. State officials now must prove that 2005 was only a beginning, not an aberration, and further progress can come. We have taken little steps and big steps in 2005 - we simply must make more of both of them in 2006.

Albany is far from being Utopia-on-the-Hudson. It will not be that by year's end, nor by decade's end, nor perhaps even by the end of our own days on this planet. But encouraging toddlers who take little steps helps urge them onward to the bigger steps to follow. That is the challenge, and the great opportunity, of self-governance; ultimately, we can shape a better life if work hard enough to do so. Step by step by step.

 

Remember the Referendums

Editors's Note: See below for text of the proposals

(October 24, 2005) Voters will go into the voting booths on November 8th with an array of county, town, city, judicial - and in Mamaroneck Village, local - races to choose from. Those contests get the public attention as they pit candidate vs. candidate, and party vs. party. Two important decisions await the voters, however, at the top of the ballot: two state referendums that may shape the budget and transit needs of New York for years to come.

Referendum Number One is a proposed Budget Amendment which has as its aim ending late budgets in New York State. The constitutional change requested would push the state budget year's start date from April 1 to May 1, and would also trigger a series of laws that would:

  • allow a contingency budget to go into effect on May 1 if the new budget is late, i.e. not finalized. The contingency budget would be the prior fiscal year's budget, similar to counties, towns, cities and villages

  • create an independent budget office to establish revenue projections (separate from the current Governor-Assembly-Senate budget revenue numbers that so often disagree)

  • create provisions to plan school funding on a two-year cycle - necessary since school budgets are adopted in the spring.

Proponents, including the state League of Women Voters, argue that this contingency provision, with the later time frame (after April 15 tax revenues can be better estimated) will rationalize budgeting. Opponents, including the state's Conservative Party, argue it takes powers away from the governor, who has more influence over budget matters in New York State than in any state in the union, and can, in theory, better exercise spending restraint.

The second proposition offers a $2.9 billion bond for transportation projects statewide. The proposal is a scaled down version of the 2000 bond act ($3.8 B), which lost narrowly statewide. This time around, projects have been designated for funding, with a defined split between roads/bridges and mass transit needs. Specific projects include $71 million for I-287 improvements; $115 million for new subway and commuter railroad cars; improvements to the Henry Hudson Parkway, track and tunnel lighting, and many other items.

Supporters, such as NY Public Interest Research Group, the state AFL-CIO and the League of Conservation Voters, agree on the serious need for transportation infrastructure improvement. Opponents, including the Citizens Budget Commission of NY and the Automobile Club of NY, argue the additional bonded indebtedness is neither wise nor warranted.

Many critics of state government, from the political right to the left, have argued that citizens have been kept out of important decisions by Albany politicians. In a year where the first fruits of reform have begun, it is indeed your opportunity to have a say on these two important issues.

I urge everyone to read the details of both proposals - check out the pros and cons online - and cast an informed vote, Don't forget to look to the top of the ballot this November.

Remember the Referendums.

Editor's Note: The two proposals will appear on the ballot as follows:

PROPOSAL NUMBER ONE,
AN AMENDMENT


Amendment to Articles IV and VII of the Constitution, in relation to the submission of the budget to the Legislature by the Governor

The proposed amendment to Articles IV and VII of the Constitution would change the process for enactment of the state budget by (a) providing for a contingency budget if the Legislature does not act on the Governor’s appropriation bills before the start of the fiscal year; (b) placing limits on the amount of spending during such contingency period; (c) once such contingency period begins, eliminating the requirement that the Legislature act on the Governor’s proposed appropriation bills, and instead authorizing the Legislature to end the contingency period by adopting a multiple appropriation bill making changes to the contingency budget, subject to line item veto by the Governor; and (d) authorizing the Legislature, subject to veto by the Governor, to modify the spending limits for future contingency budgets, except that such changes cannot take effect until three years after enactment. The proposed amendment also sets forth certain requirements for the operation of a fiscal stabilization reserve fund, from which money could be disbursed in a subsequent year. It would require estimates and information provided by state departments to the Governor for use in preparing the budget to be available to the public. It would provide a date certain by which the Governor must submit a budget and appropriation bills to the Legislature. It would reduce the time the Governor has to make changes to the budget and appropriation bills submitted to the Legislature without the Legislature’s consent from thirty days to twenty-one days. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?

PROPOSAL NUMBER TWO,
A PROPOSITION

To promote and assure the reservation, renewal and improvement of the state’s roads and bridges; subways, trains and buses; waterways and airports; and other
vital transportation systems, facilities and equipment for the benefit of the people of the state, shall section one of part I of chapter 60 of the laws of two thousand five, enacted and constituting the “REBUILD AND RENEW NEW YORK TRANSPORTATION BOND ACT OF 2005” authorizing the creation of a state debt in the amount of two billion nine hundred million dollars ($2,900,000,000) for the construction, improvement, reconditioning and preservation of transportation systems and facilities, including the acquisition of equipment be approved?



The View from Israel

(September 20, 2005) It is hard to imagine spending 7 days in New Jersey - however nice it may be - and considering it perhaps the greatest experience of one's life. Impossible to consider that journeying too close to Pennsylvania or New York could launch an international incident. Impossible to see a desert flourish, a sea so salty one floats and can't sink if you tried. Impossible to imagine New Brunswick as a place where major religions trace their roots.

Israel is no larger than the state of New Jersey, with fewer people. Yet, it is the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and one of the key sites for Islam. Thousands of years of combat across unforgiving mountains, empty plains populated by Bedouin tribes and modern Mediterranean cities such as Tel Aviv and Haifa that could be in France or Italy.

My seven days in Israel was, indeed, the trip of a lifetime.

It was a business trip, sponsored by Project Interchange, bringing nine state officials from across the U.S. on an intensive introduction to the geopolitical realities of the Middle East. I saw West Bank settlements; Masada; a children's village for arriving Ethiopian Jewish children; briefings at the US Embassy and the Israeli Foreign Ministry; dinner with the Mayor of Haifa and a meeting with the Deputy Mayor of Tel Aviv - the daughter of famed Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan. Discussions on joint economic interests with the former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.; viewing "The Fence" at Alfei Menashem, and meeting with Palestinian journalists, politicians and a sheik, along with Jewish rabbis, generals and academics. Observing military maneuvers on the Golan Heights.

No assemblyman can play amateur secretary of state in one week. But the complexity and frustrations of this corner of the world easily baffle the Western mind, accustomed to clean action alternatives that attempt to solve problems. The week of my visit, the Gaza disengagement was completed, with television showing the mass escape over the border with Egypt, and the burning of synagogues. Hardly encouraging for so dramatic an initiative.

As a Christian Roman Catholic, I saw the path of Christ's crucifixion, the Via Dolorosa, and the site of the Sermon on the Mount. I visited the Sea of Galilee and the Western Wall, and attended Shabbat services at a Jerusalem synagogue benefited by the generosity of Westchester donors, the Fuchsberg family.

But the most stirring moment comes at Yad Vashem - the Holocaust memorial. To walk through room after room documenting the human impact of this most horrible moment of mankind. And the indifference and hostile cooperation offered not only by Nazis but by sympathesizers. One exits the memorial, walking through the Forest of Righteous Gentiles, recognizing a few names - Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg – and wondering where were the rest? Where were those raised on faith of any sort that prizes human rights, that preaches against hatred and murder, who did not stand up against such systematic evil?

There are no answers.

We can only hear the words of Lincoln, given years ago at Gettysburg: “That we highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation shall have a new birth of freedom. And that government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from this earth."

As an American, that is my resolve as I returned home. That Israel must live, and we must stand by her side. Not to agree on every policy - governments and peoples do disagree - but to demand her right to nationhood be accepted and respected, and to work for a peace that provides lasting security.

 

The Pre-eminent Debate on Eminent Domain

(August 25, 2005) The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on eminent domain based on a New London, Connecticut case has sent shock waves through the body politic as people have taken sides on this controversial decision, passed by a 5-4 margin. With potential changes ahead in the makeup of the court, the specifics of the case, and the interpretation and analysis of the law and the constitutional intent of the Founding Fathers, this case offers much grist for the mill of legal and political debate for years to come. I cannot comment on the legal merits of the court's majority decision, or the vigorous minority dissent; I do think it is timely for all of us to consider the public policy implications of eminent domain powers - particularly as the court allows each state, within a broad parameter, to define by state legislation what is and isn't permissible.

There is a simplistic view that says eminent domain is a merely a tool used by a greedy government to take away property rights of homeowners and small business owners; that may arguably be the case in some situations of downtown development. However, wisely used, eminent domain created the New England Thruway - a necessary transportation corridor - over the objections of many existing homeowners of that day. The potential use of eminent domain was a factor in discussions that led to the saving of the Jay Estate and property from development in the early 1990’s. Eminent domain is a serious power, which if used sparingly and wisely, has its place among the powers of the community as a whole, expressed through its government, of providing for an overarching public need or benefit.

That is the crux of the debate, and the basis for the proposed legislation that will flood the New York State Assembly and Senate in the coming year: What constitutes "public benefit?" I might add two other elements to the debate: what constitutes "fair market

compensation" for the property taken, and finally, what is fair, procedurally, in notification to the owner of pending eminent domain action, in structuring a proper appeal process, and due process overall, rather than a rush to action that deprives the owner of their right to fight the proceedings.

For my part, I would define "public use" narrowly. The concept that adding to the tax base by establishing Facility "A" on the site where Facility "B" now stands - particularly if both entities are to be privately held, for profit - is not sufficient enough justification for eminent domain. Certainly, public use - and more importantly, public benefit - can be established by showing how a particular parcel fits into a comprehensive overall plan for improvement of water treatment and sewer treatment facilities; transportation corridors; health facilities; mandated police and corrections facilities, and uses of similar magnitude. In each case, however, there must be a complete plan developed, showing alternatives analyzed, assessing options carefully and completely, and in open public forum with community discussion and debate encouraged. Original NY State plans to require a sewer outfall tank in Larchmont Village at the intersection of Flint and Cherry, was rejected by the Village Board and by me when I served in the County Legislature; the tank's next proposed placement under the basketball court at Flint Park was also rejected by the community and its elected representatives. The mandated facility was ultimately built at the back of Flint Park after much debate and compromise without eminent domain powers exercised. The process of public input and debate worked better than the mandate of a government body. Legislation in Albany this term will seek to tightly define what represents true public benefit and how that benefit is to be assessed by the community.

Colleagues such as Assemblyman Richard Brodsky have wisely offered legislation that improve the notification and appeal controls, and allows for 150% of current market value; the fast-increasing values of our area could create a loss to the owner in say, August, after a fair market payment is made in February. These provisions may well be a part of any final bill that would pass both chambers.

The key to a productive debate ahead is to avoid the emotion-packed rhetoric that seeks to claim a position that is "conservative" vs."liberal," or a position owned by one political party vs. the other. This issue cries out for bi-partisan effort...a meticulous analysis of

the problem, and a commitment to change state law that will eliminate the fear of arbitrary and capricious taking designed to benefit one entity at the sake of another without really benefiting the public at all.

 

 

Dysfunction vs. Disagreement

(March 24, 2005) The State budget deadline is nearly at hand - April 1st. For twenty years, that deadline has been missed, and in some years, such as 2004, by quite a lot (late August). In the past few years, the media has raged, and citizens have become, quite properly, furious. A few years ago, Assembly members and senators stopped receiving paychecks on April 1st, until a budget was passed. A handful of members lost primaries and general elections on this issue. But stopped paychecks and lost elections weren't the answers. School districts and village governments, organizations and institutions with springtime starts to their fiscal year still suffer through unsurety and delays.

All of this, we are told, is because, the dysfunction of New York State government - dysfunction that exceeds all other states.

And it is dysfunctional in many ways. But it is not just that alone; in fact, dysfunction may be the lesser part of the problem. The greater part may be assessed to a division in political thinking – disagreement - that in the highly charged national and local political climate of recent years has become partisan battling to the death.

The latter is nothing restricted to Albany. We turn on television and see Washington, D.C. and some (but thankfully, not all) of our local governments tied up in hyper-partisanship. Name-calling and negative attacks make every issue fodder for the next campaign. We face a time when conservatives and progressives are each highlymotivated and unwilling to give an inch in philosophy. The extremes of both political parties dominate the primary selection process; moderates are the endangered species. The results are battles between elected officials who represent extremely different views of the world, who categorize each other's views in stark, negative terms. The once-hailed talent of compromise, the give-and-take of legislative work intrinsic in our Founding Fathers' insistence on checks and balances, has become a weakness in our current ideologically driven politics. To compromise is to show insufficient commitment to absolute principle, and must, by definition, represent a sell-out.

Our disagreements in Albany are real. The Assembly, the Senate and the governor are working through very difficult financial matters every single year. This year, at stake are major cuts to the Medicaid program. What will those impacts be on Sound Shore Medical Center, on the heels of the failure of both St. Agnes and United Hospital. What will those cuts do to local nursing homes like Sarah Neuman (a $2.8 million loss)? This budget includes a battle over housing funds - and groups like the Washingtonville Housing Alliance, reeling from last year's cuts, face more of the same this year. We are in disagreement as well on cuts to higher education, increases in tuition to SUNY, which just jumped up two years ago, and underfunding of school districts. These disagreements are what causes late budgets - again.

Upstate needs disagree with New York City needs and vice versa. The suburbs fall in-between. Republicans control the Senate for nearly 40 years, and the Democrats control the Assembly for 30 years - the longest run of split control in the U.S. by far. Is it any wonder we also have late budgets? It must be said: Each chamber, and the governor, have very different interests and attitudes they defend.

Some of the dysfunction has been reduced in 2005. Newly constituted joint budget committees have been meeting, well in advance of the deadline, and making progress outside of the "room with three men." Rank and file in both parties and both chambers are being heard, if not heeded. But we appear to be heading for yet the 21st late budgets - even with the improved procedures.

We need more reform in our legislative and gubernatorial system. My commitment is to continue to push for those structural changes.

Even more, we need a spirit of compromise, beginning with the citizens among us who will recognize and reward those who are willing to find common ground at the cost of ideological purity. And we need to reject the absolutism of those so convinced they are right, and that everyone else is wrong, and that deadlines never matter.

George Latimer
NY Assemblyman 91st District

 

Reform School

(February 26, 2005) The case for reform in Albany has been made in great detail in the works of the Brennan Center, the Citizens Budget Commission - based in NYC, the League of Women Voters and so many other groups that have studied and suggested changes to the way the State operates.

The most serious changes remain undone - but there has been a real first step in the Assembly over the first two months of the year...and importantly, the changes were done on a bi-partisan basis. We routinely see two party cooperation in local governments, forgetting how partisan Albany and Washington, D.C. have become. So it is important to note Republicans and Democrats in the Assembly since January made progress on: eliminating absentee legislative voting; joint conference committees; opening up the Rules Committee to public scrutiny; improving the rights of minority party members; advancing cable TV coverage of meetings; and more. These were all legitimate critiques of the system, and their reform is a good start.

It is, however, inside baseball. While attitudes are slowly adjusting, the real battle remains over the State budget and its chronic lateness. It's too soon to say for sure, but the structural problems hide the real problems - significant policy differences over spending cuts, program changes, and legislation that pits the Governor against the legislature and the Senate against the Assembly (and vice versa). There are philosophical battles between environmentalists and soda bottlers over expanding the bottle bill; between trial lawyers and insurance companies over liability issues; and so on. The recent history of Albany is that
gridlock means the status quo. Whichever interest is most benefitted by the status quo - avoiding an expansion of the bottle bill, or maintenance of current tort laws and settlements - gridlock becomes a successful result. "Change" or "reform" which you oppose doesn't happen. Reform means different things to different people.

New Assembly members and senators are not locked into the old arguments,
and joining with existing members who seek a new framework for debate, I work with hope and some optimism that the changes we need can come. I have had that success as a councilman and county legislator - given the time needed to change the system was measured in years, not days.

But for everybody who has been successful in business life and in family life, we know that positive change comes only with hard work, with some pain, trial and error.

That's the journey we've embarked on. Wish us luck.

George Latimer
NY Assemblyman 91st District