Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

The Sheriff of State Street

Can the “Sheriff of Wall Street” become the “Sheriff of State Street”? Critics have long charged that Albany’s inability to resolve festering policy problems is rooted in the state’s dysfunctional politics, which are enabled by laws designed to protect and insulate those in power. Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer has pledged to reform the way state government conducts its political business, and if he succeeds it would have a big impact on New Yorkers.

Powerful special interests have long held sway over policymaking in Albany. The state’s campaign finance system allows for huge contributions. The state’s “pay to play” system allows policymakers to subtly – and often not so subtly – link contributions to the awarding of government contracts, legislation and regulatory favors. Weak ethics regulations allow lawmakers to spend campaign contributions on personal items, such as country club memberships, trips abroad, the leasing of luxury cars and even ice cream parties with clowns!

New York’s system also allows lawmakers to essentially rig elections. Despite a national political tsunami, little changed in the makeup of the state legislature. The reason is in large part due to the fact that Senate Republicans draw the legislative district lines for the Senate and Assembly Democrats the house, all with an eye toward reducing the number of competitive elections.

In response to these problems, Spitzer has stated clearly that he is going to take on Albany’s ethically-challenged political culture, fight for an independent redistricting commission and demand campaign finance reforms.

If this campaign is successful, it would dramatically change Albany. Lawmakers would be forced to be more sensitive to the needs of the public and less to the demands of powerful interest groups. For example, do you think the State Senate would side with the pharmaceutical companies and keep drug costs high if they knew that they could face voter retribution? That’s what they did last year. In a competitive environment, they’d think twice. Furthermore, this new Albany may also reduce voters’ cynicism about state government and may help engage the public in the debates over the issues of the day.

So how could this new reform movement unfold? Of course, no one knows for sure, but here are some ways the new governor could kick off his reform efforts:

• Issue a series of executive actions that would open up the executive branch. For example, on January 1, Spitzer could require agencies to follow spirit of Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws; he could require agencies to post FOIL-able records, in which there is “substantial public interest,” on the Internet; and he could require the release of agencies’ budget requests and substantive bases for proposed budget items.
• Use his first State of the State speech to issue a challenge to the legislature to take steps of its own. Spitzer's actions combined with the use of the bully pulpit would put tremendous pressure on legislators to reform legislative rules that are notoriously unfair and allow for far too much secrecy.
• Advance proposals to change the redistricting process, overhaul the ways elections are funded, open up the budget process and strengthen the state’s ethics. Use his power to convene “leaders meetings” to force a public debate on these and other important topics.

Blair Horner is the legislative director of good government group New York Public Interest Research Group  








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