With Eliot Spitzer sworn in as governor on the first
day of 2007, New Yorkers have an array of expectations
and demands for the state's new chief executive. Some
want to see their taxes go down, while others want
better services in the state. And still others think
that, with a state senator under indictment, the state
comptroller forced to resign and the Senate majority
leader under investigation, nothing is more important
than cleaning up the mess in Albany.
For his part, Spitzer has vowed changes from Day One.
But how can he negotiate his way through the competing
demands and the labyrinth of state government?
Last month the New School's
Milano School sponsored a conference on
Change: Policy, Politics and the Spitzer Administration." The following comments from five
people in the know, including two former governors,
are excerpted from the discussion.
Make Our Lives Better
By Norman Adler
There are basic and substantial policy problems facing
New York State. If I were an adviser to the governor,
I would say, solve some of the issues that the people
in the state care about.
When you ask people what they care about, they care
about taxes, they care about education, they care
about making a living, they care about the economy of
the state, they care about health care. They don't
care about the procedural stuff. When Spitzer goes
back to run for re-election, the electorate is going
to say, "What about taxes, what about health care,
what about education, what about the budget, what
about the economy?" If you haven't produced on those,
the fact that you told people who work for government
that they can't lobby for two years after they leave
government, is going to be greeted with either a scoff
or a yawn.
Spitzer has a ruling from the State Court of Appeals
that gives him a lot of freedom on the budget. The
legislature can barely do anything about it except sit
on its hands. He has an enormous victory from the
electorate. He has a huge majority of Democrats in the
Assembly and a bare majority of Republicans in the
Senate. And I believe the Republicans are looking to
work with him. So if Spitzer does not succeed in
advancing some of these issues, he has really blown it
and the electorate has a right to take it out on him
the next time he runs.
I have a farmhouse in Connecticut, and it gets damp
every time it rains. I hire a guy who comes and puts
plastic around the outside, but when it rains I have
water in the basement. So the guy caulks the inside.
But when it rains, I still get water in the basement.
Political money is like water in the basement. You can
do every single one of these reforms: You can limit
the amount of money you ask for, you can prevent
lobbyists from holding fund-raisers in Albany, and all
of that, but resources are going to flow in the next
election because that's the way it is.
If the governor is going to expend his resources, he
should expend them on something where he can go back
and say to the whole state, "There, I did something
for you, and your life will be better because of it."
Campaign finance reform is not it.
Norman Adler is a political consultant.
By Gerald Benjamin
This is the 15 minutes of fame for reform in New York.
Reform has been put on the agenda. And we have a
change in the executive branch. We have a
governor-elect who has committed himself, both through
his behavior and through his policies, to fundamental
reform of our government.
So we're at a special moment. The fundamental question
is, what should we pay attention to and focus upon?
Since everything has the word "reform" added to it,
the population of possibilities, already very large,
First: New Yorkers need a functioning democracy, and
they do not have one. There were more votes cast - 20
percent more - for governor in 1954 than in 2006. The
drop off is palpable from the last relatively
competitive election to this one, so there is
something going on. One thing we can do is restore
confidence in the system. We need campaign finance
reform, legislative redistricting reform, and election
administration reform. Our failure to meet federal
expectations on the Help America Vote Act has raised
visibility of the fact that we have a grievously
abysmal election administration system embedded in our
Second: Return financial balance and probity to state
government and to local government. We hear
discussions on how to make borrowing easier in a state
that has an extraordinary level of debt. Bring fiscal
balance to the state, real balance, not year-to-year
balance. Address the property tax. Make the budget
outcome transparent and understandable to citizens
Third: Improve our institutions and the relationship
among our institutions. We have to attend more to the
reform of the judiciary, which has been stymied
despite the best efforts of the chief judge because it
requires constitutional change. There are other
opportunities for greater transparency, greater
And I think we have a fundamental stake in the
revitalization of the Republican Party. If we do not
have competitive politics, we cannot have accountable
government. If we have the principal Republican
institution in the state [the State Senate] dependent
upon malapportionment, and our failure to reform
campaign finance, Republicans will persist in relying
upon systemic pathologies to sustain the only bit of
power that they still retain.
The governor has some choices to make. If I were
making the choices, some of the most popular reforms
would not move forward because they are the least
likely to be achieved. I would take reforms like merit
selection of judges out front. I would take reforms
a decent technology to reform voting out front. If the
courts are making us do those things, the governor
should embrace the opportunity.
But in the longer term, our governor-elect needs a
constitutional reform agenda. Every area I have
mentioned implicates the New York State constitution
and barriers to change in it.
Gerald Benjamin is dean of liberal arts and
sciences at the State University of New York at New
Paltz and an expert on state and local government.
Close The Loopholes
By Blair Horner
The governor has to deliver on the things he said he
is going to deliver on. He said he is going to deliver
on a property tax cut, he said he is going to fix
Medicaid, he said he's going to deal with Campaign for
Fiscal Equity ruling on school funding.
The list is long, and there are only so many things
one governor can do. So if I were counseling the
governor, I would urge him to focus on using his
executive power and on the areas where opportunities
will present themselves this year.
For example, the law that creates the legislative
redistricting commission expires in June. That law has
to be extended if the legislature wants to continue to
have a commission that, as far as I can tell, does
nothing for eight years and a lot for two. This is a
perfect opportunity to raise the issue of how district
lines are drawn. Can the governor win on that issue in
one year? Not if you want a constitutional amendment.
But you won't get a constitutional amendment unless
you begin the process.
The lobbying law expires next year. It is a perfect
opportunity to raise the issue of lobbying and ethics.
Next year is the 20th anniversary of the state's
ethics law, which was not great when it was first
passed and has withered away. The longer you have a
reform, the more people think of how to get around it.
New York's ethics law has more or less been frozen in
time and space from 1987, and people have figured out
how to game the system. So it's a good opportunity to
go to that issue.
the consumer price index for campaign contributions kicks in. To people
who work on social
issues, the index is a nice thing [it increases
benefits to keep pace with inflation] but in campaign
contributions it can be a bad thing. The legal limit
for campaign contributions to a political party in New
York is $84,000 a year. That gets adjusted for
inflation in early February and goes up to close to
Is it right that the party campaign contribution limit
is about to go over $100,000? Is it right for elected
officials, who virtually never face opponents, to
spend the money on themselves, for leasing luxury
cars, for taking trips abroad? Is it right that no one
enforces the pathetic law we have in New York?
People are not writing huge campaign contributions
because they are giving to charity. They want
something in return. And when they talk they speak
with a megaphone and the rest of us speak with a
whisper. That's not right.
Spitzer does have to deliver on the big-ticket items.
But he has to have a reform victory that people
understand relatively quickly because it will get
harder as time goes on. He should press ahead on some
of these issues and see what shakes out.
If Spitzer is able to achieve reasonable campaign
contribution limits, as low as possible, close up some
of the ridiculous loopholes in the law and actually
get it to be enforced, that would be a substantial
Blair Horner is legislative director for New York
Public Interest Research Group
Keep the Tax Pledge
By William Weld
When I ran for governor of Massachusetts, I proposed
cutting a billion dollars out of the budget. [Outgoing
Governor] Michael Dukakis said, "Billy Weld doesn't
understand the state budget. He doesn't understand
that we've already cut through the fat and through the
muscle and severed the nerves and we're now down to
bone, he's asking us to scrape bone marrow."
But we found $2 billion out of a $14 billion budget in
the first two months. I believe that there's no modern
budget that doesn't have 10 percent in it that
couldn't be cut. Government has a way of growing
beyond what's absolutely necessary, so I would suggest
to Governor-elect Spitzer that he solidify that no new
taxes pledge, which he has come close to making, and
stick by it. It creates the discipline you need.
There are creative things you can do. We are at a
point, for example, where we can consider changing
from a tax based system for transportation to a user
based system that would take some pressure off the tax
rolls and transfer it to the consumers of various
You've got to get 50 percent of your agenda
accomplished in your first six to nine months or
you're going to be a failure. The first year is
critical. And you need at least one confrontation with
the status quo to indicate that you're your own
person. But beyond that, there's something to be said
for getting along with the leadership of the
legislature of both parties.
I think Spitzer is in a good position. This is a guy
who clearly doesn't mind breaking a few eggs to make
William Weld is the former governor of
Massachusetts and ran briefly for governor of New York
By Jim Florio
A lot will depend upon events. For example, the Jersey
shore is almost sacred in our state. And in the late
'80s the Jersey shore was closed as much as it was it
was open because of medical waste washed up on shores,
sewage sludge and so on. A part of my campaign was
that I was an environmental guy and that we were going
to do something about the shore. And we actually did
it. We got $1.5 billion for sewage facilities, we got
laws on sewage sludge. And for the last 12 years, the
Jersey shore has been virtually pristine.
Those kinds of things allow you to lead. The problem
reaches crisis proportions and someone addresses them,
then your locomotive has a caboose.
On the ostensibly tough issues you can start laying
out what's involved and sometimes you can change
public opinion. On gay marriage, if Spitzer is on the
record as being in favor if it, he's going to have to
sway the legislature, When I was governor, one of the
things that I did was ban assault weapons. I took on
the National Rifle Association. People said you can't
do that. But we went out and educated the people on
why it wasn't desirable to have access to Uzis and
AK47s in our communities.
You have got to be comfortable with yourself. If there
are things you have to do to get elected that are
going to cause you sleepless nights, it's not worth
the cost. So, I would suggest to the governor that he
works from his own sense of values. I'm not saying he
has to be suicidal but risk adversity seems to be the
be all and the end all in politics in this day and age
and that's really not what elections are supposed to
be about. Making people unhappy is not the worst thing
in the world.
Jim Florio is the former governor of New
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