By Rebecca Webber
Do you do at least one of the following?
Rent your apartment
Send your kid to public school
Ride the subway
If you do, and you live in New York City, then your fate is in the hands of the New York State Legislature, all of whose members are up for re-election this year. Primary Day is September 10; Election Day, November 5.
Critics cringe at the power that officials in Albany have over the lives of New Yorkers, because the New York State Legislature has been called the most dysfunctional legislative body in the nation.
Though there are more than 200 state legislators, real power is said to reside with only three men -- the governor, the speaker of the assembly, and the leader of the senate -- who hammer it all out, helped along, say critics, by powerful lobbyists.
If the arrangement seems undemocratic, it should at least be efficient. But this it is not. Bills languish for decades. A gay civil rights bill first introduced in 1971 has been reintroduced 30 times -- and will be introduced again next session, since in this one, the legislators failed to act once again.
For 18 years in a row, the legislators have missed their deadline for passing
the state budget, often by many months. "The state budget process is a total failure," said Diana Fortuna of the Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog group, which hands out report cards to legislative bodies. Last year, it gave a grade of "C" to the City Council's budget process, but to the New York State Legislature, the grade was an "F." The New York State Legislature is able to make the New York City Council look good.
The public seems far from outraged. Indeed, a seat in the state legislature offers what may be the closest thing for an elected official to a lifetime job. Even Guy Velella, a state senator from the Bronx who was recently indicted for taking bribes, is almost certain to be re-elected to his ninth term in office. Incumbents almost always win re-election. In the last election, not a single one lost. Few face any challengers.
This year is no exception. Of the more than 80 "races" for New York State Assembly and New York State Senate representing some part of New York City, apparently only 19 as of now have more than one candidate running. (Velella is one of the incumbent senators so far running unopposed). And six of those are open seats, with no incumbent, either because the incumbent is retiring or because the seats are newly created.
But, unlike the New York City Council, which for many years has been struggling to assert itself in what is essentially a mayoral form of city government, the New York State Senate and the New York State Assembly have extraordinary power in the state -- and over the affairs of the city. They largely determine how much rent and taxes New Yorkers pay, who controls the schools our children attend, how Lower Manhattan will be rebuilt, whether the water we drink is clean, even whom we are allowed to marry.
"I've learned that our capacity to affect issues is very limited in the Council unless the Assembly and Senate give us permission," said Margarita Lopez, a member of the City Council, in an article in Gotham Gazette on the effect of September 11th on domestic partners.
Gotham Gazette has written before about the way Albany rules; the conflict between upstate and downstate; and the way that redistricting is an incumbency-protection plan.
Over the next few months, Gotham Gazette will be keeping an Eye on Albany. Here is a first, quick look at a dozen issues of vital importance downstate, and what Albany legislators are (or, more likely, are not) doing about them
More than 40 percent of the money to fund the city's public schools comes from Albany. In January, 2001, State Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse ruled that the state should provide even more, saying that the system Albany
used to finance schools deprived some students in New York City of the basic
education they are guaranteed under the state constitution. Governor Pataki
appealed the decision, and an appeals court overturned it in late June of
Albany does not, however, simply write checks. The state exerts a huge amount of control over schools in the city. Mayor Michael Bloomberg won control of the school system recently only because the governor and state legislature decided to give it to him.
And the state sets educational requirements as well. Beginning in the 1990s, in an effort to improve educational standards in state schools, the state began requiring an array of tests and ordered that students pass a minimum number of so-called Regents tests in order to graduate from high school. Some high schools in the city have resisted this requirement, but the state has stood firm.
THE ROCKEFELLER DRUG LAWS
New York's drug laws, passed in 1973 by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, are among the harshest in the nation. The law mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for anyone convicted of selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of narcotics and gives judges no discretion.
Since 1980, the state prison population has increased from 20,000 to over 73,000 inmates. The laws have taken an exceptional toll on minority communities. Ninety-four percent of New York State's drug offenders are African-American or Latino.
Many elected officials, prosecutors, judges, and correction officials are on record as saying they think the laws should be changed. But the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate have not been able to agree on how that should be done.
Once again, this legislative session will end with no action.
Although rents in New York City's controlled and stabilized apartments are set by a city body, the
Rent Guidelines Board, the state determines whether rent control should exist at all. Currently, over a million apartments in New York City are regulated, keeping rents for these homes below market rates.
The current law expires in June 2003. Supporters of rent regulation hope that the current provisions will be extended for another five years and that the legislature repeal the provision which deregulates apartments that rent for $2,000 or more a month. The State Assembly passed such a bill this year, but it died in the Senate in the face of opposition from Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.
State Comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Carl McCall has urged Pataki to extend the rent control laws now, a year before they expire. A Pataki spokesperson scorned this as partisan politics, but McCall backers claim uncertainty over the regulations has created fear among the 2.5 million New Yorkers who live in rent-regulated housing.
Overall, there is an ideological split around rent regulation. Supporters of rent regulation, including politically active tenant groups, insist that the measures are needed to keep housing affordable for low and middle-income New Yorkers. Landlords, who are often important campaigns contributors, claim that regulation has limited the supply of housing by keeping their profits artificially low.
GAY CIVIL RIGHTS
For 30 years, the legislature has been mulling a "Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act," or gay civil rights bill -- and not passing it. This year went according to the pattern. The measure had support from Governor George Pataki and passed the State Assembly by a 115-27 vote. And then, as usual it died, a victim of inaction in the Senate. New York City already ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The city does not, however, recognize same-sex marriages because The City Clerk's office maintains it cannot issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples without the state's permission. The state has not granted that permission and certainly seems unlikely to do so any time in the near future.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM
In last year's municipal elections, the candidates for city offices ran under one of the most sweeping public finance laws in the nation, which provided matching funds, but also restricted how much money they could receive and from whom. This contrasts remarkably with the rules for state office seekers.
Major party candidates for the state legislature spent a total of almost $40 million on their
2000 election campaigns. In the first six months of the current gubernatorial campaign, the three major
candidates collected some $17.5 million, according to reports by
Citizen Action of New York. Reformers say much of this money comes from special interest groups that then expect legislative favors in return.
In response, some 80 organizations have proposed a "Clean Money, Clean Elections" bill. Like the city law, it would establish a system under which candidates who comply with limits on campaign spending and contributions would receive public funds for their political campaigns.. Maine, Vermont, Massachussetts and Arizona have enacted similar reforms. Although the New York measure has 56 cosponsors, it has gone nowhere in the legislature.
In 1999, when the State Legislature repealed the commuter tax the city's economy was good. But even Republicans like former Mayor Rudy Giuliani were outraged by the deal that gave suburban tax-payers a break of half a percent of the income they earned in the city.
Today, the absence of that tax means the loss of $500 million revenue for the New York City.
And although the state regularly bails smaller cities like Buffalo and Yonkers out of difficult times,
now that New York City is facing the worst financial crisis in 25 years, Albany is
offering little help. This year, the state will lend the city $450 million that it must pay back with interest.
All elections in New York City, even those for the most local of offices, are controlled to a great extent by the state. Albany mandates bipartisan boards of elections and has set out requirements (such as declaring that the entire ballot be visible at once), that dictate the way elections here are run.
On many levels, in New York City at least, the system is failing. The city's more than 6,500 old mechanical voting machines break down frequently on election days, causing long waits and voter frustration. In 2000, even Mayor Giuliani had to wait 30 minutes to cast his ballot. Election inspectors are often uninformed.
While the power to change this lies largely with the legislature, it has instituted only small changes. When voters go to the polls this fall to elect members of that legislature later this year, the Board of Elections will once again cross its fingers and hope that everything will go smoothly. But as the city's machine's continue to age, they -- and the voters -- are pressing their luck.
New York State Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman has called New York's court system a "mosaic, a jigsaw puzzle, a bureaucracy and a mess."
In 1997, Chief Judge Judith Kaye proposed a plan for reorganization to bring surrogate and other courts into a two-tier system of supreme and district courts. Many agree this is a much-needed reform, but the state legislature has never been able to act on it.
Former Governor Mario Cuomo, who appointed Judge Kaye, once said of her reform proposal, "It took 200 years to get a woman on the Court, so it'll take 220 to get a merger."
For three consecutive years, the New York State Assembly passed a bill raising minimum wage. Each year, the bill died in the Republican-controlled Senate. Governor Pataki believes the hike, from $5.15 per hour to $6.75 per hour, would make New York less attractive to businesses which can find lower labor costs elsewhere.
SUBWAY FARE INCREASE
Even though the commuters who ride the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's buses, subways and trains live or work in the New York City area, the authority is a state agency with members named by the governor. The state legislature determines how much taxpayer money the authority will get each year.
With the transportation authority facing a deficit projected at $250 million, many believe a hike in the subway fare to $1.75 is all but inevitable. Governor Pataki has insisted a fare hike won't happen, but if history repeats itself, fares may well rise after the November election.
Recently, the New York State legislature has done a considerable amount of work on health care.
The state has implemented plans for public health care such as
Child Health Plus,
Family Health Plus,
and Healthy NY. Child Health and Family Health expand public insurance, applying strict income limits,
but costing recipients very little. Healthy NY, which began
in January 2001, offers reduced rate insurance to employees of small businesses, and other uninsured individuals.
However, the number of uninsured New Yorkers continues to grow. Currently, 25 percent of New York City residents lack health insurance.
And although Albany does act, it is not always in a forthright manner.
In 2001, the legislature passed a $1.8 billion health-care financing law in the middle of the night that gave hospitals and nursing homes in the New York City area money to raise salaries for union members. The bill also allowed Empire Blue Cross & Blue Shield to convert to a private company.
Lobbyists spent $18.2 million to seal the deal, the most expensive campaign that year.
The state Superfund to clean up toxic waste sites has been bankrupt since April 2001 and, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group, is more than $50 million in debt. Meanwhile, the group says, the Department of Environmental Conservation has listed some 766 toxic sites, with hundreds more yet to be discovered. Various proposals have been proposed to resurrect the Superfund but there are wide differences among them, and none has passed.
New York City has acres of less toxic brownfields, contaminated industrial sites that can be cleaned up and reused. But, according to Environmental Advocates of New York, this is the only state "that does not have a program to clean up and reuse the brownfields." States that have put programs in place have been rewarded with federal assistance. Over the last few years, bills have been introduced in the legislature to create brownfields programs.
But, as seems to be the pattern in the New York State legislature, none of the bills have been enacted, because the legislators cannot agree about what to do.