The VIEW FROM ALBANY
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.
(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.
See you in September!
(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.
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.
We need kings...and princes, too.
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".
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.
But as Jesse Jackson once said, "keep hope alive."
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.).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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).
(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.
(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:
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.
(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.
(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 ofthe 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.
(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.
(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
New Assembly members and senators are not locked into the old arguments,
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.