NY’s political dysfunction runs deep

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

When it comes right down to it, state legislators only have to do a handful of things to earn their $79,500 salaries.

Pass a budget.

Vote on bills and appointments.

And, once every 10 years, redraw election district boundaries for the U.S. House of Representatives and the state Senate and Assembly.

It appears likely that lawmakers are going to let a federal judicial panel draw the lines for Congressional seats.  They continue to haggle over the lines for Senate and Assembly seats.

The standoff is a stark reminder that Albany is still dysfunctional at a basic level. Politics is the art of compromise, and the Republicans and Democrats have been unable to bridge their partisan differences, much less rise above them to do something that resembles “good government.”

“This was the year New York State lawmakers were going to stop protecting incumbents by gerrymandering political maps to improve their re-election chances,” Thomas Kaplan wrote the other day in The New York Times. “But in Albany, as they say, it is déjà vu all over again. “

As Kaplan noted, incumbents stand to benefit, as is usually the case when it comes to Albany politics.

“The slow pace of redistricting is a boon for incumbents, because it makes it more difficult for potential challengers to organize campaigns and raise money. The state’s new election schedule allows Congressional candidates to begin gathering signatures next week to qualify for the ballot, but, at the moment, there are no agreed-upon boundaries for any of the House districts.

“Making matters even better for incumbents, the Legislature has refused to consolidate a messy 2012 election calendar, leaving in place a multitude of election days that seem certain to depress turnout. New York is scheduled to have three statewide primaries — in April for the presidency, in June for Congress and in September for the Legislature. There are also, in some areas, village and special legislative elections this month, and school budget votes in May. Then the general election is in November. “

Little wonder that former New York City Mayor Ed Koch declared Albany home of “the most devious Legislature in America. We tried our best, and the ghouls won.”

All this is sobering to those who thought Albany was starting to get its act together, based on the adoption of the state budget on time last year and the passage of several major pieces of legislation.

But those deals were the byproduct of the “business as usual” approach to governing New York. “Three Men in a Room” continued to cut the deals, leaving rank-and-file lawmakers consigned to taking marching orders after the fact.

This dynamic was driven home in December when Cuomo and Senate and Assembly leaders worked in secret to bang out a deal to revise the state income tax code.

Reported The Times:

“The deal was also criticized because it had been developed without debate, hearings or any form of public review. Mr. Cuomo announced his plans to seek an overhaul of the tax code on Sunday, via an essay he offered for publication to newspaper editorial pages, and the negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders took place behind closed doors.

Three government watchdog groups released a statement condemning the process, saying “matters of this magnitude should not be decided in secret, during the legislative hiatus and without a formal process.” Susan Lerner, the executive director of one of the groups, Common Cause New York, called the secret negotiations an “abuse of the process” that was “breathtaking in its scope.”

In short, state leaders engaged in politics as usual. Last December, it resulted in a new tax code. But this time around, with hyper-partisan interests on the line, the process broke down. Until the process itself is fixed, we can expect to see more of the same in the future. For the present, New York’s reputation for dysfunction remains intact.