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Waiting For Albany

by Doug Israel and Amy Ngai, Jan 02, 2006
 

The problem was straightforward: Since more than half of all New Yorkers are immigrants or the children of immigrants, many parents could not read the report cards and other school documents that their children brought home to them in a language they did not understand, English.

The solution seemed straightforward as well, at least to the New York City Council, which passed a law last month that would require schools to provide translation and interpretation services in eight major languages -- Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Korean, Urdu, and Arabic.

But the Bloomberg administration is reportedly opposed to the council’s bill -– not because it opposes translations for non-English-speaking parents, but because it accuses the council “of overstepping its jurisdiction.” The power to make such decisions, it says, largely rests in Albany.

It is a familiar refrain. Critics may accuse Mayor Michael Bloomberg of using it as a convenient excuse in several issues, but the truth is, Albany does control much that is vital to the lives of the residents of New York City.

New Yorkers must depend on the governor and the state legislature -- based in Albany -– for how much rent and taxes we pay, how Lower Manhattan will be rebuilt, and whether the water we drink is clean, as well as much of what will happen in the city’s schools (especially how much money those schools will have.) The proposed Jets Stadium for the West Side of Manhattan may have provoked vigorous debate among New Yorkers, but it was Albany that put the kibosh on the plan. The city's subways and public buses may not venture past the five boroughs, but the new contract for the city’s transit workers could be nixed by Albany. Indeed, a day after the news last week that a provision of the new contract gives 20,000 transit workers refunds of previous contributions towards their pensions, Governor George Pataki announced he might veto it.

The most crucial NYC issues that are in Albany’s hands during this election year haven’t changed much since the last time there were major state-wide elections four years ago. (See Blame Albany, written in 2002, for a list of the “downstate dozen” issues.)

The issues stay more or less the same because, to put it bluntly, the public officials in Albany don’t do what they are supposed to. In 20 of the past 21 years, to pick a large example, Albany has failed to come up with a state budget by the legally-mandated deadline. Last year was the sole exception.

At the beginning of the legislative session last year, good-government groups suggested that the time was ripe for reforms that would force Albany to address New York’s problems more efficiently and effectively -- especially changes in legislative rules and an effort to make elections more competitive.

As the new legislative session is set to begin this week, New Yorkers continue to push for a package of reform from Albany to address some of the long-standing issues for which the city and its residents have had to wait. Two of many such examples are education and health care.

Waiting For a Sound Basic Education

It has been almost five years since the New York State Supreme Court declared the state's financing of public schools was in violation of a student's constitutional right to a "sound basic education." Responding to a lawsuit filed by the Campaign For Fiscal Equity, the court ordered the state to provide city schools with adequate funding for teachers, facilities, classrooms and to create reasonable class sizes. The deadline for compliance passed a year and a half ago. The city has yet to see a penny.

After the initial deadline the ruling judge, Justice Leland DeGrasse, appointed three referees to assess the noncompliance of the state and to submit a plan to implement the unfulfilled verdict. The recommendations of the referees (in pdf format) required that the state provide New York City $5.63 billion for operating expenses and $9.2 billion for facilities. Governor Pataki, arguing that the legislative and executive branch of government rather than the judiciary should determine the funding formula for public schools, is currently appealing the court order. If the court rules in favor of the state, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity plans to appeal to the Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York State.

While the legislature and governor have come to agree that the current system of funding needs to be revised, the amount of funding that should go to the city and the formula to determine that funding for the future remain areas of dispute.

A bill has been introduced in the Assembly, known as the "Schools for New York's Future Act," that essentially implements the court ruling and funding structure. However, prospects for passage are slim. The sponsor was Assemblymember Steve Sanders (See his article last year on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, The Governor Delays and Denies). But Sanders has just retired, and there is not much support for the funding formula in the Senate. As the governor and legislative leaders fail to reach a compromise, city school children continue to wait for the case to make its way through the courts.

Waiting For Health Care

New York City has 1.7 million people living without health insurance. Most are working people whose places of employment do not offer insurance.

The state actually has reduced the number of uninsured over the past several years, mostly through programs such as Family Health Plus and Healthy New York which have provided greater access to Medicaid for low income New Yorkers.

But health advocates say that Albany could do much more to increase the number of insured, including the continuation of a unique New York program that allows community groups to sign people up for Medicaid (called “facilitated enrollment"), which is due to expire soon. Legislators could also make it easier for employers to provide benefits for their workers, and allow more flexibility for the employed to buy into public programs.

The challenge in increasing (or even just maintaining) health care coverage is to do it while at the same time reducing (or just containing) health care costs. Health care is an increasingly expensive proposition that is of growing concern to public officials, as the recent transit contract negotiations brought to light. For example, one out of every seven dollars the City of New York raises in revenue goes towards Medicaid. And, according to a report (in pdf format) issued by the Citizens Budget Commission, the city’s contribution is growing at a rate of close to three percent annually.

Some of the increased cost is due to fraud. Last year, the State Senate approved legislation that would create an independent Medicaid inspector general, taking away some of the responsibility for combating fraud from the Health Department. Governor Pataki and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer opposed the measure, as did the State Assembly.

Curbing runaway spending on prescription drugs is another area that could help the state save millions of dollars. New York’s spending on prescription drugs has more than doubled over the past five years; in 2004, it had reached $3.8 billion.While costs are going up around the nation, Albany lagged behind other capitals in passing legislation to reign in costs and now New York pays much more than other states: New York could have saved an estimated $348 million, for example if it had been as aggressive as states like Michigan in setting the prices it pays pharmacies for the drugs they dispense. While the state recently created a ''preferred drug list,” a tool used by at least 30 other states to make prices more competitive, the program contains a very big loophole that allows doctors to easily circumvent it. According to the New York Times, this came after heavy lobbying by the pharmaceutical lobby, which has spent millions in New York State ensuring healthy profits.

Waiting For The Budget

The annual delay in the passage of the state budget has had severe repercussions among a wide range of organizations that cannot make decisions without knowing how much money they will be receiving from the state. This forces them to waste time and money as they wait. Unsure how much funding they will get, for example, classrooms must do without new science equipment, art teacher positions remain unfilled and after -school sports and clubs are held in limbo.

This past November voters rejected a “budget reform” ballot proposal drafted by the state legislature that attempted to address the problem by shifting power to propose a budget from the governor to the legislature if there were no agreement in place by the deadline. Voters ultimately saw this as little more than a power grab.

“I wish it had passed," Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowtiz from the Bronx said shortly after its defeat. "Hopefully, it will be raised in the political agenda.”

The budget reform agenda this year includes:

  • Creation of an Independent Budget Office, along the lines of the Congressional model, to conduct nonpartisan budget analysis
  • Requiring multiyear financial planning with regular updates to make longer-term consequences of budget decision more apparent and to instill greater transparency and discipline to the budget process.
  • Balancing the budget in accordance with what accountants call "Generally Accepted Accounting Principles" to ensure accurate accounting and more realistic budgets.
  • Creation of a package of incentives to ensure on-time budgets -- and disincentives (penalties) to prevent late budgets.

Ethical Lapses

In 2004 State Senator Guy Velella was sent to prison for accepting bribes to paint bridges, only to be released by an obscure city panel. After public outrage, Mayor Bloomberg appointed new members to the panel, which then returned Velella to prison.

Assemblymember Roger Green was caught last year billing the Assembly for travel expenses to and from Albany when he was getting free rides from a prison-services company seeking state contracts. He stepped down from his seat after pleading guilty -- but then was re-elected.

Brooklyn Democratic leader and Assemblymember Clarence Norman has been found guilty of misuse of campaign funds and is being tried for larger charges stemming from an investigation into the sale of judgeships in Brooklyn.

The persistence of these ethical lapses, adding to the inability to reach agreement on such substantive issues as education, health care and the budget, helped push the movement to reform Albany towards center stage in the 2004 legislative elections.

Reform Agenda, 2005 and 2006

The push towards reform was helped along by a persuasive report by the Brennan Center for Justice calling the state legislature the most “dysfunctional” in the nation.

Candidates from both parties began touting their reform credentials and pledging to their constituents that they would help clean up the mess in Albany. Thomas Suozzi, the county executive from Nassau County (who now is eyeing a race for governor), campaigned for his county position on a “Fix Albany” theme, and even helped unseat a fellow Democrat.

The 2005 legislative session resulted in some real reform:

The state passed meaningful lobbying reform that will require oversight of lobbyists seeking to influence government contracts.

The state closed the “get out of jail free” loophole that allowed former officials to avoid prosecution by resigning from office.

Campaign finance disclosure requirements and the freedom of information law have been strenghthened.

There have been some helpful changes to the rules in both houses of the legislature.

This year, there will be a push to go further:

1. Further ethics reform to restrict gifts from lobbyists and campaign contributions from businessmen who receive government contracts.

2. Reform of the state’s public authorities to ensure greater oversight and transparency, particularly in the area of debt issuance.

3. Budget reform.

4. Further legislative rules reform to ensure a more transparent, deliberative and democratic legislative process

5. Redistricting reform to take the power of drawing district lines out of the politician’s hands who benefit from the way they are drawn and give the power to an independent, disinterested body.

Waiting For Albany To Change?

The year 2006 begins with a number of questions:

Will the budget process be fixed?

Will the legislature act to clean up its own house(s)?

Will legislators focus on reforming public authorities and ethics?

Will the process of drawing up districts be changed to allow for more competitive elections?

Many are hopeful these issues will be addressed, if for no other than practical reasons. Governor Pataki’s declaration that he is not seeking re-election changes the equation of the “three men in the room” – the fact that Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Governor Pataki have ruled Albany as a triumvirate for years. On the one hand, there is talk among legislators that there will be a “Silver-Bruno” alliance that will bridge their wide partisan divide. On the other hand, Pataki is clearly hoping to run for president of the United States, and will certainly want to boost his accomplishments in his last year in office.

To make matters more intriguing, two minority members of the legislature, Democratic State Senator Liz Krueger and Republican Assemblyman Tom Kirwan have filed a lawsuit against the governor and the two legislative leaders, charging that the rules in both legislative bodies discriminate against the minority members (in the Senate, the minority are the Democrats; in the Assembly, the minority are the Republicans.) Building on the momentum generated by the movement to reform Albany, the lawsuit challenges the closed-door system of government that the three men have implemented. Although a preliminary court decision has greatly narrowed the scope of their lawsuit, Krueger said she was pleased with that ruling, which reaffirmed her belief that "there is a role for the judiciary in addressing legislative dysfunction."

The new dynamic that exists this year, a year in which all the legislators must run for re-election, might allow for progress to occur without relying on court rulings. At the close of 2005, in response to the murder of two New York City police officers, the governor and the legislature demonstrated their ability to compromise in the passage of new crime and gun control measures. Will this spirit continue? We will just have to wait and see.

Doug Israel is advocacy and policy director, and Amy Ngai program associate, of Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.

 


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