Angry New Yorker

Tuesday, May 13, 2003
I've been asking Rumsfeld to send the Marine Expeditionery Unit to Albany for weeks; now that they're work is finished in Iraq they're needed here in New York. "Calling General Tommy Franks! General Franks to a white courtesy phone." From the Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, May 13, 2003:

New York Crisis: Empire State? Try Banana Republic! by John Steele Gordon

"The once mighty Empire State has become a banana republic. Long the most populous and powerful state in the Union, the home state of six presidents (and 11 vice presidents), New York dominated American politics and the economy through much of the nation's history. It was an engine of legal and economic innovation, daring, and reform in the country as well.

Today, New York is only the third most populous state. It has lost 10 seats in Congress in just the last 30 years. And while New York long had the highest state credit rating in the nation, today it has only an AA- and has sunk as low as A-, just above junk status. The state has the highest debt per capita and the highest taxes as well. Despite great natural advantages, its economic growth is, to be charitable, anemic. New York has become the sick man of the American Union.

The only political innovation in New York these days is the endless creativity the government in Albany brings to devising new smoke and mirrors to hide the fiscal disaster it presides over. In 1992, for instance, it balanced its expense budget -- which the state constitution requires be balanced -- by selling Attica State Prison to itself. A state agency sold $200 million worth of bonds, turned over the proceeds to the state, and took title to the prison, which it now rents to the state.

Ken Lay, call your office.

It was the Erie Canal that gave the Empire State its commercial empire. The largest public work in world history up to that time, the canal was a gigantic gamble. And yet the state built it entirely on its own, bringing the project in under budget and ahead of schedule in 1825.

The gamble paid off big time. By providing a vastly cheaper and quicker means for shipping the produce of the Midwest to the eastern seaboard, New York became, in the rather grumpy words of the Boston poet Oliver Wendell Holmes (father of the judge), "that tongue that is licking up the cream of commerce of a continent." In 1800, New York City handled about 8% of the country's exports. By 1860 it was 62%. By the 1920s, it was the busiest port in the world. * * * *

But in the 20th century, New York allowed a fundamental tendency of society -- institutions will evolve in ways that benefit their elites -- to operate unchecked in state government. The result has been government of the people by the politicians for the special interests, to an extent unknown elsewhere in the country -- perhaps in the democratic world.

The central institution in any state government is its legislature, and New York, in a very real sense, doesn't have one anymore. Instead it has two colleges of cardinals. Once the Senate has elected a majority leader and the Assembly a speaker at the beginning of each term, the members might as well go home for all the power they have to shape legislation. The speaker and majority leader determine the agenda in each house, name committee chairmen, determine committee assignments, and hand out other perks and the handsome salaries (called "lulus" in Albany parlance) that go with them. Any member who gets out of line will find his or her lulus taken away. (Members don't even have to be present to vote. Once they sign in in the morning, they are automatically counted as voting "yes" on every bill unless they show up to vote "no.")

It is the speaker and the majority leader, not the Assembly and the Senate, who determine the budget with the governor. And the budget has not been passed on time in almost two decades as the back-room log-rolling among the three about whose special interests -- unions, school districts, hospitals, etc. -- will get the most attention (and money) drags on. As a result, the state budget has ballooned far beyond the economic growth needed to pay for it.

This utter perversion of democratic government is possible only because there are virtually no competitive elections for the state legislature. Each house draws up its own district lines, with incumbent protection the only criterion. Although both Democratic and Republican governors have carried the state by landslides in the last three decades, neither house of the legislature has changed hands in that time. The Senate is permanently Republican, the Assembly permanently Democratic. And New York State government is permanently dysfunctional as a result.

Is there a solution?

Well, the state constitution requires that a proposition be placed on the ballot every 20 years, asking if a constitutional convention should be called. The last one, in 1997, attracted almost no media attention beyond a New York Times editorial urging its defeat, and even fewer votes. Fourteen years is a long time to wait for a government that has become an on-rushing fiscal train wreck to be reformed.

Instead, the state media should begin demanding action, exposing Albany horror stories (there is no shortage) and endorsing candidates who run on a platform of giving New York a real legislature, regardless of which party they belong to.

Or perhaps disenfranchised New Yorkers could ask Donald Rumsfeld to send in Tommy Franks and restore our lost democracy. Hey, it seems to be working in Baghdad." ---
Mr. Gordon is the author of "A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable" (Walker, 2002).

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