Same as the Old Boss

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Ossified.

Webster defines it as “hardened or conventional and opposed to change.”

As in government in New York State.

A cursory reading of the headlines might lead one to believe that governance in New York is starting to move in the right direction since Andrew Cuomo took up residence in the governor’s mansion.

The state budget got passed on time, the income tax code was revised, gay marriage was approved.

Indeed, by one measure—passing major legislation and spending packages—there has been progress. Paralysis has been eased.

But the manner in which many key measures have been passed underscores just how little has changed in the way Albany functions. All too often, deals continue to get cut behind closed doors and rank-and-file lawmakers are called upon, sometimes in the dead of night, to cast votes on bills they are given little time to read, much less vet.

If the axiom “good process makes for good government” holds true, then New York has advanced little since Cuomo took office. In fact, it may have regressed.

It’s little wonder that the State Integrity Investigation, in a report issued earlier this week, ranked New York one of the more corrupt states in the nation. The study posed 330 questions pertaining to areas of government that are historically susceptible to corruption.

New York earned a “D” based on a score of 65 out of 100. That ranked the Empire State 36 out of 50 states.

New York received a grade of “F” in four categories—state budgeting process, redistricting, ethics enforcement, and pension fund management.

What’s noteworthy is that Cuomo has not used his political capital in an effort to reform the redistricting and budgeting processes and campaign finance laws, all of which are cited in the study as serious problems.

Indeed, the governor seems to relish the “three men in a room” dynamic that many see as a fundamental problem. The governor voiced contempt for more open deliberations last week when he declared, “Government is about action. It’s not a debating society.”

Implied in his comments is that he considers it unnecessary to give rank-and-file legislators time to review bills and budgets, vet them through the committee process, and seek public input. Rather, deals should be made by a handful of leaders behind closed doors and rubber-stamped by the Senate and Assembly.

After an all-night session last week that produced agreements on redistricting, pensions, and casino gambling, the New York Times reported “Cuomo has faced grumbling from government watchdogs and some lawmakers for condoning—and, by some accounts, demanding—a rushed process.” The governor’s response was the “debating society” crack.

The Times, in a strongly worded editorial, chastised Cuomo not only for failing to follow through on his vow to veto gerrymandered legislative districts but for engaging in tactics that represent a step backwards in Albany’s already undemocratic culture.

“We have been brought back to the ugly days of the past,” said State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat.

Opined the Times: “The truth is, this deal guarantees that the back-room politics that have infected Albany for generations will govern for another decade.”

So much for reform. For all his talk about reforming state government, Cuomo has shown much more interest in simply cutting deals. The ends justify the means.

Get ready for more of the same, folks.

Take upcoming elections for Congress and the State Legislature. Given the widespread disgust with Congress and the State Legislature, you’d think there might be some hotly contested races. There will be some competitive races—particularly for Kathy Hochul’s Congressional seat and Mark Grisanti’s State Senate seat—but not many.

That’s the point of redistricting in New York—protecting incumbents. Protecting the status quo.

The stagnation filters all the way down to school boards and village councils.

Eight villages in Erie County held elections Tuesday. Trustees were elected by default in five of them. It seems the “government closest to the people” is all too often a closed shop.

Then there is the Buffalo Board of Education. It hired a consultant to help the search for a new superintendent, who met with a wide range of stakeholders and reported back the other day that folks are mostly disillusioned and disengaged. That provides a vacuum that the bureaucrats and unions—the architects of a system widely regarded as a failure—are all too happy to fill.