Up in Albany, the 211 mostly obscure individuals who make up the New York State Legislature shape the lives of New York City dwellers in ways Gothamites never imagine. “People see Albany as this faraway place, filled with not very impressive public officials, but they don’t realize the power it has,” says former city lobbyist Maggie Boepple. For instance, one recent legislative decision ordered the city to pay its disabled emergency medical workers a budget-busting three-quarters of their salary; another directs city school districts to offer pre-kindergarten classes to all four-year-olds by 2002—though the city lacks the teachers and classrooms to do it. As former MTA chairman Richard Ravitch puts it: “The city is a creation of the Legislature. The Legislature could pass a law tomorrow, a few minutes later the governor could sign it, and New York City would be destroyed.”
But instead of destroying the city in a single apocalyptic flash, the Legislature continually hobbles it by blocking needed reforms. Mayor Giuliani, after a successful first term, is now squarely up against the Legislature’s power: to accomplish further major improvements—to launch school vouchers or to make high-tax Gotham more business-friendly—he will need Albany’s say-so.
This power is something new. For most of its history, the Legislature just took orders from the governor. As recently as the early Rockefeller years, legislators simply watched as the Faustian Rocky conjured up the gigantic welfare state that now encumbers New York. The campuses of the State University of New York expanded and multiplied; state office buildings, housing projects, hospitals, and nursing homes erupted; and scores of new government programs, including a vastly expanded Medicaid, blossomed. To pay for it all, Rockefeller made New York the highest-tax state in America, and he invented 40 largely unaccountable bond-issuing state “authorities” to get around the constitutional requirement for voter approval of state borrowing, burying future New Yorkers under a mountain of debt.
But as the sixties gave way to the seventies, the Legislature turned into a powerful machine for preserving, even extending, the Rockefeller-created welfare-state behemoth. It boosted its strength by adding staff and taking control of campaign financing from county political leaders. And it changed its personnel and its ideological bent sharply leftward in the wake of two cataclysmic reforms. The mid-sixties’ “one man, one vote” standard for legislative districts shifted power from upstate, Republican-dominated rural counties to more populous and heavily Democratic New York City and its suburbs, while the 1974 Justice Department order, under the Voting Rights Act, to redraw Assembly and Senate districts in New York City wiped out most city Republican legislators and replaced them largely with hard-left black and Hispanic activists. When Democrats won the Assembly for good in 1974, the new city legislators became a Praetorian Guard defending Rockefeller’s idea that government was the answer to every social problem. Flocking to their banner were the special interests—the social services providers, teachers’ unions, and trial lawyers—that Rocky’s welfare state had spawned.
Though the Senate stayed Republican in 1974, Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats quickly reached an understanding to let each house protect its turf during future redistricting, assuring a permanent Democratic control of the Assembly and Republican control of the Senate. And they struck a tacit bargain not to interfere with each other’s spending priorities: Republicans wouldn’t balk at Democratic social services largesse, say, if Democrats let State University and construction spending soar.
The result: a rush to tax and spend that has drained vitality out of New York’s private-sector economy. When the 1989–94 recession gripped New York, for example, the Legislature raised taxes $1 billion each year, using the money, explains historian Fred Siegel of the Democratic Progressive Policy Institute, to protect key interests from the downturn’s harsh effects. “It didn’t matter that the pie was shrinking, so long as the interest groups could grab a larger slice of what remained,” Siegel notes. Debt ballooned, too, to $1,800 per capita today, three times the national average. And at today’s $4,671 per capita, New York state and local taxes are a staggering 52 percent above the U.S. average. With private employers shunning such a high-tax state, New York’s job growth has been among the nation’s weakest for decades.
A quarter of a century after their takeover, Democrats remain in control of the Assembly, and New York City’s Democratic Assemblymen, nearly two-thirds of the 98-member Democratic majority, dominate the party conference, holding the speakership and most committee chairs. They are an unprepossessing group, many of them locked into musty orthodoxies, fashionable when they first arrived in Albany back in the Age of Aquarius. Typical is Manhattan’s Richard Gottfried, head of the city’s legislative delegation and Health Committee chairman. As a bearded 23-year-old “in love” with the Kennedys, Gottfried joined the Assembly in 1970, while enrolled at Columbia Law School. Today he describes himself as “a committed progressive,” upholding New York’s business-throttling tangle of environmental and labor regulations and seeking to decriminalize pot. “If I weren’t able to participate in the Legislature,” he says, “I think I’d still be throwing bombs.”
Or there’s Edward Sullivan, the Upper West Side’s 22-year Assembly veteran. As one legislator put it: “If you want to hear the party line without a deviating beat, Ed Sullivan’s your guy.” As chairman of the Higher Education Committee, he fights to preserve under-performing and costly SUNY and CUNY from the least reform. He plans to introduce a bill to stop the mayor from appointing members to CUNY’s board of trustees—the main reason Mayor Giuliani could push firmed-up standards on the university.
In the sixties, Al Vann, an Assemblyman from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant for 24 years, headed the virulently racist African-American Teachers Association, notorious for its battle against white teachers during the Ocean Hill–Brownsville school decentralization crisis. Today, though Vann’s dashikis have given way to suits, his politics remain far left. “My philosophy,” he boasts, “has not changed.” Chairman of the Committee on Children and Families from 1981 to 1992 and of the powerful Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions since then, Vann has brought millions of taxpayer dollars to social services organizations in Bed-Stuy, many renting space from the lawmaker’s eponymous creation, the Vannguard Urban Improvement Association—itself boasting a $1.5 million government-funded budget.
Alexander “Pete” Grannis, from Manhattan, elected in the annus mirabilis 1974, started in politics as “the organizer for New York’s first Earth Day in 1970,” he boasts, and he claims to be behind virtually every piece of environmental legislation in New York over the past two decades, including laws on acid rain, recycling, and toxic wastes—all of which have harmed the city’s economy by raising costs and preventing building. Roger Green, a Brooklyn Assemblyman for 17 years, and chairman of the Committee on Children and Families, runs for office advocating a “Children First” theme, but he squelched legislation to prevent child-welfare authorities and family court judges from returning kids to dangerous families where a sibling has been murdered or abused. Even a newcomer like Manhattan’s Deborah Glick, first elected in 1992, fits into the historic mold: the first openly lesbian member of the State Legislature, she considers herself a “grass-roots” activist. Indeed, of the 59 Assembly Democrats from the city, only some half-dozen aren’t imprisoned in the old-paradigm thinking that distrusts markets, looks to government to answer problems, and views personal responsibility as an oppressive fiction.
The city’s Senate delegation is cut from the same cloth, though no senator quite equals Queens’s Ada Smith, Senate Minority Whip, whose history of aberrant behavior has earned her the sobriquet “the Wild Woman of Albany.” Earlier this year, when Brooklyn police, writing a traffic ticket, momentarily blocked the path of Smith’s car, the spitting-mad Solon allegedly bit one officer before he maced and handcuffed her.
When characters like these interfere with city affairs, they do so in four major areas: economic life, education, criminal justice, and rent control. In each case, they champion the special interests—usually unions, but also trial lawyers, criminals, and rent-controlled tenants—against the public interest.
With respect to their meddling with Gotham’s economic life, consider tax policy first. As Assemblyman Gottfried bluntly puts it: “The city can’t change a comma in its tax code without Albany approval.” New York City’s killer taxes have cost it an estimated 1 million jobs, as fed-up businesses fled town, while new ones flocked to more welcoming economic climes. (See “New York’s Million Missing Jobs,” Autumn 1997.) But Gottfried’s position on taxes is typical of Assembly Democrats, who understand that first you must tax before you can spend. “I don’t think cutting taxes improves the business climate,” he argues, “since many things essential to making the city a good business environment—good schools, hospitals, public transportation—demand substantial public investment.” Mayor Giuliani, though far from a tax-cutting firebrand himself, had to get State Legislature approval on each of the modest tax reductions he achieved, saving taxpayers more than half a billion dollars in 1998. “The Assembly fought us on many cuts,” says one city lobbyist, “wondering why we were doing these things for businesses.”
The Legislature gives away many of these tax dollars to special interests—above all, to unions, both those representing municipal employees and those representing private employees working on city contracts. Salaries and benefits to municipal workers make up half the city’s $33 billion budget, and their runaway growth is a major reason that city taxes are so swollen. Yet the city doesn’t fully control its payroll. According to city budget director (and until recently, chief lobbyist) Robert Harding, a maddening feature of the Legislature’s involvement with the city is its union-friendly interference with collective bargaining. “Once a municipal union strikes out at the bargaining table,” Harding grumbles, “it simply seeks relief in Albany.”
This interference has been a problem ever since Mayor LaGuardia proudly helped make New York a “100 percent union town” six decades ago. Just ask former mayor Ed Koch. “The unions bargained with me back in 1988,” Koch recalls, “but I said we couldn’t afford to increase pensions—they were already more generous than the state’s. So they went to Albany, and the Legislature said, ‘We’re going to increase your pensions.’” Koch threatened to blame the inevitable layoffs on Albany. “So they were really pissed,” he says, with a wan half-smile. Yet in the end, all he could get was a few months’ delay before the increases kicked in. Today, pensions—more than double those that employees of the average Northern and Midwestern city receive—cost New York City $1.4 billion a year.
The Legislature’s tactic in aiding city unions is to introduce a constant stream of bills, knowing that sooner or later one will pass. Though recent bills to let state and local employees retire with full benefits at age 55 and to give full city pensions to such non-teaching school personnel as school secretary interns failed, those that do become law add up. For instance, two 1998 laws that boosted city pensions and protected Gotham’s educational retirees from unilateral changes in health insurance premiums will cost city taxpayers millions.
A perfect case in point is the Senate’s approval in December, without a single word of discussion, of a bill already passed by the Assembly to shift the site for arbitrating city labor disputes with cops from the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining—where disputes have been hammered out for 25 years—to the state’s union-friendly Public Employment Relations Board. As Harding warns, the move “would cost the city $200 million a year” through hiked salaries and benefits. Governor Pataki vetoed an earlier version of the bill in early 1996, but the 29,000-member police union had enough pull in both houses to get an override. The city sued, and the State Court of Appeals ruled in its favor on technical grounds. But the issue, like Dracula, came back from the grave. In late December, Governor Pataki signed the new bill, drafted to skirt court challenge.
The Legislature’s support for unions hurts the city’s economy through inaction as well as action. The most striking example is Albany’s failure to overturn the 77-year-old Wicks Law. Originally meant to stop corrupt government contracting, it requires city and state agencies to negotiate at least four separate contracts for electrical, plumbing, construction, and air conditioning, heating, and ventilating work on public building projects that cost more than $50,000. Separate contracts mean the city can’t hire a general contractor who’ll complete the whole job at a fixed price, do a lot of the work “in house” at a reasonable price, and coordinate the different parts of the job, avoiding costly delays while the air-conditioning workers, say, wait for the electricians to do the necessary wiring. The law adds as much as 27 percent to every public construction project; it will cost Gotham an estimated $151 million this year.
Despite intense pressure from the city and other local governments, the Legislature refuses to repeal the law. As former Giuliani advisor Richard Schwartz explains: “Who is the Legislature going to favor: the city’s lobbying office, representing the mayor and the people of New York, or the labor unions, which have the money to elect people?” And things will get hundreds of millions of dollars worse if Governor Pataki doesn’t veto a union-backed bill the Legislature passed late last year to allow public contractors to sue the city, or any public agency, for construction delays—delays the Wicks Law guarantees.
Beholden to yet another special interest, the Legislature also blocks tort reform, a change the city urgently needs to unfetter its economy. As Steve Malanga of Crain’s points out, “New York has more laws making it easier to sue than virtually any other state,” a legacy of the anti-business consumer-protection ideology that took root in New York in the sixties and seventies. Thanks to the Legislature, New York businesses face tort risks that exist in no other state, from third-party lawsuits (if injured on the job, I can sue my employer or the company that made the equipment I hurt myself using—which can turn around and sue my employer, too) to “safe place to work” laws (holding construction companies responsible for workplace mishaps, even when the injured worker has behaved with flamboyant foolishness).
The proliferation of lawsuits affects businesses from auto-rental companies—where a doubling of motor-vehicle torts over the last decade has pushed auto-insurance costs 30 percent higher in New York than anywhere in America and driven dozens of car-rental agencies out of New York or out of business since 1995—to obstetricians, who pay $115,000 a year for the same malpractice insurance that, thanks to financial caps on malpractice awards, costs only $40,000 in California. An estimated one out of six New York obstetricians has given up delivering babies since the mid-eighties because of tort risks. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research study confirms what these examples imply: states that limit civil lawsuits generate more economic activity—and jobs—than those that don’t, and they also enjoy higher business productivity.
New Yorkers pay for the rise in liability lawsuits in their taxes, too. Tort cases against the city itself have jumped 60 percent over the past decade, with big settlements routine. Tort settlements will cost the city an estimated $383 million this year. In 1997, trial lawyers made an astonishing $100 million milking the city. Former city lobbyist Maggie Boepple, now a lobbyist for Nixon, Hargrave, Devans, and Doyle in Albany, remembers a settlement from the seventies that, in retrospect, looks like the handwriting on the wall. “Somebody tried to kill himself by jumping in front of a train,” Boepple recounts. “He wasn’t successful, but he lost both legs when the train ran him over. So he sues the Transit Authority for millions of dollars, and he wins a huge settlement”—which a cap on personal injury awards, like those 30 other states have passed, would have limited.
Legislators are vassals of the trial lawyers, who vigorously lobby against such reforms as caps on awards or limits to class action suits. In 1997, the trial lawyers spent close to half a million dollars in lobbying to stave-off changes in tort law. That doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but in New York’s Legislature, where a few thousand dollars goes far in unpublicized elections, it’s more than enough to get lawmakers to pay attention to the trial lawyer’s wishes. Some prominent legislators are trial lawyers themselves: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver runs his private practice out of the offices of the former head of the Trial Lawyer’s Association; the chair of the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee—which handles tort legislation—is Helene Weinstein, counsel to a firm specializing in medical malpractice. In the Senate, the Insurance Committee chair is Guy Velella, whose firm handles personal injury cases. When I asked Assembly Insurance Committee chair Pete Grannis what the prospects were for tort reform, he dryly replied, “You can’t put a cap on pain and suffering.”
A huge millstone weighing down the city’s budget is the more than $3 billion yearly it must pay for its share of Medicaid—roughly equal to the city’s structural debt. Unlike most states, which pay the entire 50 percent of the Medicaid cost that the federal government doesn’t pay, only New York and Arizona require localities to split the non-federal share. True, Gotham gladly shouldered this burden in the Rocky era, when, feeling flush and generous, it conspired with Albany to offer recipients every imaginable benefit, from chiropractic services to artificial insemination. But now the cost has become a burden, and the Legislature’s spendthrift ways keep increasing it: New Yorkers pay close to $7,000 a year per Medicaid recipient, more than twice the national average. City officials have repeatedly begged the Legislature to cut back Medicaid spending and to require the state gradually to assume the entire non-federal share of the cost—to no avail. (See “Medicaid’s Fatal Attraction,” Winter 1996.)
Each legislative majority has its cherished Medicaid special interests that provide healthy campaign contributions: Assembly Democrats favor health worker unions; Senate Republicans, hospitals and nursing homes. Part of what is wrong with the Legislature is that lawmakers can hold outside jobs, and the entwinement of politics and Medicaid has allowed some legislators to profit handsomely. Former Democratic State Senator Pedro Espada Jr.—sycophants still call him “Senator”—has for years run a giant South Bronx clinic that employs hundreds of people and brings in millions in Medicaid dollars. Earlier this year, he and two employees were arraigned for allegedly diverting $221,000 in Medicaid money to his unsuccessful 1996 reelection campaign. Pedro’s brother, Jose, who also has political aspirations, runs a Bronx ambulette company. Over in the Assembly, Bed-Stuy’s Al Vann formed, a few years back, a for-profit company that trolled for Medicaid patients on behalf of a health maintenance organization, until both federal and state law banned such blatant solicitations. What incentive would such politicians have to control Medicaid costs?
The second major area in which the Legislature shapes New York City’s fate is education: school governance and a sizable chunk of education funding are state matters. The city enrolls 38 percent of the state’s students, including 70 percent of those living in poverty and 80 percent of students with limited English-language proficiency. Yet it receives only 34.7 percent of state education aid, amounting to a $340 million loss to the city in the 1996–97 school year alone.
But the biggest complaint the city has with Albany concerns the lawmakers’ stubborn opposition to education reform. Gotham’s underachieving public schools are ultimately Albany’s responsibility: the Legislature determines such basic matters as teacher tenure and how much power local school districts will wield, and, through appointments to the Board of Regents, it sets the qualifications for teachers. It is the Legislature that decided whether the public clamor for charter schools succeeded, and it will decide the fate of school vouchers, too. Given that the Legislature behaves like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the teachers’ union, which opposes such reforms, getting real improvement is like pulling teeth.
Influential Manhattan Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the Education Committee chairman, rejects vouchers, as does every Democratic Assemblyman I interviewed. “It’s not an appropriate use of public dollars,” Sanders tersely says. He’s not much more enthusiastic about charter schools: “The devil is in the details,” he opines—correctly, since such details as whether charter schools must abide by the same union-negotiated work rules that created much of today’s school failure are key. Commenting on Governor Pataki’s effective charter bill, which the Legislature watered down before passing it in December, Sanders warns: “The difficulty is that it takes the chartering authority out of the public school milieu and gives it to other entities.” Of course, charter schools will improve student performance only if they do break with the “public school milieu,” with its focus on the interests of teachers rather than students, but never mind. “How do you determine what kind of certification or experience teachers in charters would have?” Sanders continues; “Not everybody can teach.” His implication is that charter schools should have the same restrictive certification requirements that make public schools off limits to the gifted teachers without ed-school degrees who fill the teaching ranks of the best private schools.
When I pressed Sanders on how to improve city schools, he noted that the Regents had set more rigorous professional development programs for teachers and had standardized the practices of ed schools. But these are meaningless reforms, tightening the control of the same education bureaucrats who helped make the mess in the first place. What other reforms does Sanders support? Building and repairing school buildings: “We don’t have the housing to have quality education,” he says. “Classrooms are overcrowded, the schools are old, some still use nineteenth-century coal to heat their buildings”—disregarding the fact that impoverished Catholic schools, with classrooms as ramshackle as the most decrepit public school, have vastly better test scores and graduation rates. In short, here’s Sanders’s vision: leave in place the public school status quo, shovel more money at it, and all will be fine. Not an inspiring message for frustrated parents.
Little wonder that there’s fierce resistance to change in Albany. In 1997, the New York State United Teachers threw $2 million at legislators in lobbying and campaign contributions, making it Albany’s biggest-spending special interest. The teachers’ unions also provide campaign troops and phone banks at election time, without which—as David Dinkins discovered when they sat out the 1993 mayoral race—it’s harder to win. Some of the most influential Assembly Democrats, like Majority Leader Michael Bragman and Election Law Committee chair Paul Tokasz from Buffalo, were once schoolteachers or administrators themselves. Finally, there’s sheer indifference among upstate Republicans, who view education reform as a city issue. Why should they risk incurring the teachers’ unions’ wrath over it? As Senate Education Committee chair Charles Cook puts it: “To issue vouchers to send kids to private school isn’t going to happen; after all, we’ve got a public school system to maintain.”
Waive enough money at New York’s venal legislators, though, and anything might happen. When the Legislature passed, despite fierce teachers’ union opposition, a watered-down, but still promising, version of Pataki’s charter bill, it took a huge 38 percent pay hike and other lousy legislation, including the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association bill, to get lawmakers to do it. Though the law is hardly everything education reformers would like, it permits charter schools to have some uncertified teachers, allows some non-union charters, and ensures that funding follows students to good schools, forcing the underperforming ones to get their act together or lose revenue. It’s not an educational revolution, but it’s a first step, and in New York’s retrogressive Legislature, nothing short of amazing.
Mayor Giuliani’s most spectacular success has been slashing New York City’s crime rate by 44 percent, but Albany, which has vast authority over matters of criminal justice, has hindered rather than helped his efforts. Above all, while most states have sharply increased penalties for young thugs, New York’s legislature has reformed the state’s juvenile justice system so minimally that juvenile crime has dropped infinitesimally in the last five years compared with other categories of crime. The Assembly’s refusal to make convicted violent young felons ineligible for youthful-offender treatment, or to permit consecutive sentencing to keep young thugs behind bars, or to let Family Court issue search warrants—all of which the more law-and-order-minded State Senate approved—means that young felons remain correct in thinking that the punishment they face for crime is minimal or nil. “The Assembly,” says one New York juvenile-justice official, “has been the Berlin wall when it comes to stopping sensible juvenile-justice legislation.”
Moreover, though the mayor has reduced crime principally by directing the police to enforce laws against quality-of-life offenses, the Assembly (unlike the Senate) has refused to make that task easier by increasing the penalties for such quality-of-life offenses as aggressive panhandling or using the streets as a toilet. As Citizens Crime Commission head Thomas Reppetto puts it, the Assembly Democratic majority has been “pro-defendant” in the extreme.
The members of the Black, Puerto Rican, and Hispanic Caucus are the most energetic obstructionists in the Assembly, and they base their opposition to reform on the view that the injustice of society causes crime and that the “system” unfairly singles out poor minorities for punishment. While the influential, 34-member, mostly New York City–based caucus opposes reforms, it regularly spearheads the appropriation of tens of millions of dollars—$40 million in 1996–97—for Prisoner’s Legal Services, the Defender’s Association (a Harlem-based legal-aid group), and various delinquency-prevention programs that often provide aid to criminals but little solace to victims.
Queens’s personable Jeffrion Aubry, until recently caucus chair, attributes New York City’s drop in crime not to the Giuliani administration’s new-paradigm quality-of-life enforcement but rather to David Dinkins’s community policing—and to the economy. “I always draw a correlation between economic times and crime,” Aubry explains. “In a capitalistic society, money is primary, right or wrong, so when people don’t have it, drugs go up, crime goes up.” Aubry’s belief that crime springs from envy and resentment rings a sophisticated, and particularly distasteful, change on the “society-is-to-blame” argument that made New York an anxious and unsafe place as recently as five years ago, especially in the inner-city communities for which the caucus claims to speak.
In the same vein, caucus member Arthur Eve of Buffalo, a 32-year Assembly veteran and now Deputy Speaker, recently told a reporter that prison must be made “a very productive experience” for inmates. “The attitude of just punish, punish, punish doesn’t make sense,” he opined. Similarly, caucus-member Gloria Davis, the grandmotherly chief of the Majority Conference in the Assembly, attributes crime in her south Bronx district to a lack of jobs—“and I’m not talking about a fast-food type of thing,” she says. She admits that crime has lessened in recent years but complains that “the police department polices like the Gestapo. I look outside my window and see police officers roughing up people just ’cause they’re in blue.” Davis ignores the fact that the Giuliani administration’s aggressive policing tactics are what made crime drop in her neighborhood more than most. When Davis complained about the quantity of drugs that come into the U.S. and end up in her district, I asked her if she thought there was government complicity. “What do you think?” she shot back. “You never thought about it?” Her solution, based on her visits to drug-free—and totalitarian—China in 1982 and Cuba in 1991, is to put “all the docks, all the airplanes—everybody—under suspicion.”
True to its “pro-defendant” stance, the Legislature, because of Assembly opposition, adjourned in June without passing “Jenna’s Law” abolishing early parole for violent felons and mandating longer sentences for violent crimes. Perhaps signaling a change in voter sentiment, the public outcry that followed forced Speaker Silver to call an emergency session of the Legislature at the end of July to pass the law.
The Legislature, which reimposed rent control on New York City when federal rent curbs expired in 1950, now stands in the way of abolishing rent regulation, which worsens the housing shortage that it was designed to address, most notably by causing landlords to abandon thousands of buildings whose regulated rents became too low to afford them a profit. Rent regulation also discourages new housing construction by making developers fear that, if they build rental housing, the Legislature will someday place it under rent regulation, as happened in 1974. Moreover, because rent regulation makes prosperous tenants unwilling to leave their bargain apartments, it dampens demand for the shiny new housing they might otherwise want.
Nary an Assembly majority voice favors ending or modifying rent control. Manhattan’s Richard Gottfried expresses the consensus: “Strong rent-protection laws are as essential to the character and functioning of New York City as rapid transit.” When Senate Republicans joined forces with Governor Pataki in 1997 to end rent control in New York, Assembly Democrats rallied scared tenants. Pataki chickened out, reaching a compromise with Speaker Silver that left most rent protections still in place. Assemblyman Edward Sullivan sees staving off the end of rent control as one of the Assembly’s greatest victories. “Rent control,” he says, “gives stability to city neighborhoods that otherwise wouldn’t have it, if the landlords—not all of them are bad, though I haven’t run into any who aren’t—had their way.”
Walking through Albany, one can’t escape the shadow of the dehumanizing architecture of Nelson Rockefeller’s Empire State Plaza, whose Orwellian government buildings span an area equivalent to 15 football fields. The art critic Robert Hughes has it exactly right: “It is designed for one purpose and achieves it perfectly: it expresses the centralization of power, and one may doubt if a single citizen has ever wandered on its bleak plaza . . . and felt the slightest connection with the bureaucratic and governmental processes going on in the towers above him.” The Mall’s “architecture of coercion,” as Hughes calls it, is a perfect emblem of New York’s hypertrophied welfare state.
In fact, the emblems of it are everywhere: if not for the capitol, for Rockefeller’s Mall, and for the lobbying groups and associations that the welfare state sponsors, Albany would be a ghost town. Here’s the Association of Social Workers on Washington Avenue; now we see the New York Public Welfare Association on the same street; there’s the Health Care Association of New York on Pear Street. From Amber’s and the dozen or so other escort services and strip clubs to Bleeker’s, Jack’s, and the more than 200 restaurants, to the countless secretarial agencies, Albany’s business is government, and as government grew, so did the numbers of Albany dwellers who make their living from the state.
Nothing changes in this seat of corroded idealism. Because of computer-gerrymandered redistricting and the huge financial and staffing advantages incumbents enjoy, many legislative races are almost comically non-competitive. There’s often no primary challenger, and, in the main race, winners usually garner huge majorities or run unopposed. The Legislature has the highest incumbency return rate of any state legislature in the nation, at over 95 percent; in 1998, no incumbent lost a seat. Lawmakers grow comfortable in office, and make more money—after the new 38 percent pay raise, a salary of $79,500, swelled by extra fees generally ranging from $2,500 to $41,500—than most other state legislators. What has emerged is a single party of power—a nomenklatura, as City Journal contributing editor and former Urban Development Corporation head William J. Stern calls it—dedicated to self-preservation and to profiting by the many ways big government has of providing financial opportunities to generous political contributors.
The Legislature is still a top-down political body, though some, like Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, delicately describe it as a parliamentary-style institution, with strong executive authority and little opposition input. Assembly Speaker Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno decide what bills will pass, control the funds each member gets to hire staff, divvy up perquisites, make lucrative committee appointments, and hand out the treasured “members’ items”—bills that give individual legislators who fall into line over $300 million yearly to spend as they like on such questionable projects as the Caribbean Research Center at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College or the Museum of Cheese in Rome, New York. Albany’s Potemkin democracy shrouds itself in secrecy, with many important decisions made behind closed doors. Party caucuses, where the real deal often comes down, aren’t open to public scrutiny. (See “New York’s Nightmare Legislature,” Spring 1995.)
The secrecy extends to the behavior of legislators, who often spend long stretches of time away from their families. Throughout Albany’s political history, legislative aide Peter Slocum points out, “nighttime activities between consenting adults were not considered news.” Before Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett made his first trip to Albany, Manhattan Assemblyman Denny Farrell warned him about the Bear Mountain Compact: “Once you cross the exit for Bear Mountain,” Barrett explains, “nobody is to bring back tales of what they’ve seen.” As Slocum reports, there was, and still is, a lot to see. Albany went on “full red alert,” as some legislators called it, when lawmakers’ wives flocked to the capitol for the fancy, now defunct, governor’s dinner and ball. All the mistresses moved out for the weekend, according to Slocum. Booze still flows abundantly; high-stakes poker games, where lobbyists chronically lose, still flourish. Slocum adds, “It’s a bit like the Mets at spring training from time to time.”
The Bear Mountain Compact finds reinforcement from the New York City-based press’s lack of interest in Albany. As Robert Ward of the Public Policy Institute observes, “None of the city newspapers tells anything about what their elected representatives are doing.” The New York Times, which ignored state legislative races in this year’s election, didn’t publish their results until three days after polling booths closed. Small wonder, then, that Gothamites—40 percent of the state’s population—pay no attention to Albany. Assemblyman Gottfried, puzzling over it, notes that, “People know councilmen, yet they’re barely aware of the State Legislature—it’s quite astonishing.” He candidly admits that the indifference gives him cover: “My upstate colleagues often say they admire the anonymity we city legislators work in, and in some ways there is a lot to be said for not having it reported every time you sneeze. But it’s not good for democracy.”
In the money-drenched culture of mutual backscratching that Albany’s Potemkin democracy breeds, fund-raisers and lavish meals take up more time than legislating. Queens Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, the Labor Committee chair, complains: “I’m one of the last legislators here who doesn’t hold fund-raisers in Albany, and I’m going to have to start—there’s too much pressure to bring in money.” During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers held 201 fund-raisers, more than one per legislative day, according to the left-wing public interest group NYPIRG.
In 1997, spending in Albany by special-interest lobbyists rose 31 percent to a record $51.4 million—an 800 percent inflation since 1978. The state leaves lobbyist gift-giving essentially unregulated. An honor system, with no further enforcement, requires legislators to disclose only gifts valued over $1,000. Lobbyists and their clients must report their efforts to influence legislation, but they can keep mum on their attempts to get state agencies to change policies or hand out government contracts. True, lobbyists are supposed to declare any gift over $75, but they don’t have to say whom they’ve given them to. Legislators get showered with fancy dinners and tickets to concerts, playoff hockey games, and Broadway shows, among other perks.
Strikingly, eight of the top ten biggest-spending lobbying groups receive, directly or indirectly, taxpayer dollars, according to a 1998 state government report. Whether it’s the United Federation of Teachers (Albany lobbying expenditures in 1997: $672,000) demanding money for school construction or the Health Care Association ($523,504) driving up Medicaid costs or the Civil Service Employees and the Public Employees Federation ($903,650 combined) inflating pensions, taxpayers pay millions of dollars to groups that go to Albany and spend money to tax them more. As a former aide to Mayor Giuliani put it, “Something has broken down”—and it’s the nanny state, parasitical rather than nurturing. In this way do public servants become the masters of the polity.
Does lobbying work? Maggie Boepple says yes: “I now advise any client that they have got to be willing to contribute politically.” And as former Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea (the last Republican speaker, from 1969 to 1974) curtly admitted to Peter Slocum, “Of course they’re effective.” The immediate political effect of it all? It’s what public-choice theory calls a breakdown in the political market, as special interests protect hard-gained terrain at the expense of the common good.
Not surprisingly, given the Legislature’s power over Gotham, City Hall has a lobbying operation in Albany, too, though its currency isn’t money but the threat of political embarrassment. Much of what the city’s lobbyists do is preventive medicine. In the words of former city lobbyist Boepple: “The amount of crazy bills affecting the city that float around in Albany is just horrifying—you pick up any legislative calendar on any day, and there will be bills that would utterly devastate the city.” Another former city lobbyist, Pete Piscatelli, concurs: “As much as 80 percent of what we did was trying to kill bills.” If several unsuccessful bills had become laws over the past few years, New York City would be decidedly worse off. Thieves could lift the latest Backstreet Boys CD with impunity, thanks to an Assembly bill that decriminalized petty theft. Five additional industrial-development agencies—one for each borough—would now join New York City’s own costly and inefficient IDA in offering deals to well-connected firms. And a 1996 bill, passing both houses before the governor vetoed it, set promotion quotas for New York City detectives, overriding the Police Commissioner’s ability “to assign members of the force as he sees fit,” as ex-chief city lobbyist Robert Harding complained.
What is to be done? Without doubt, New York City would benefit from a more open process in Albany, perhaps through Assembly Minority Leader John Faso’s pet idea, an Albany C-Span. City concerns could get the public hearing they deserve. The major media might pay more attention. Federal legislation ending the deductability of state and local taxes from federal income taxes might impel wealthy New Yorkers to get serious about pushing reform in Albany once they stop being able to pass on half their state and local tax burden to the feds—though the danger is that it would drive them to lower-tax states before Albany got the message.
It’s past time to end politically gerrymandered districts. As the thoughtful and principled Faso argues, “the biggest institutional change that could affect this place would be, once every ten years, to have a fair reapportionment that respected jurisdictional lines and that did not cut up communities of interest into five or six districts.” When I asked Faso how likely it was that redistricting might be turned over to an independent commission, he tersely replied: “Slim or none at present.”
Two major reforms would surely put an end to Albany’s irresponsibility: initiative and referendum, which allow citizens to put large policy questions to the electorate; and term limits. California is an exemplary case of how initiative and referendum works. Citizen initiatives there have led to upper limits on property taxes, the end to admissions and hiring quotas in state institutions, and the abolition of forced bilingual education. Elsewhere, voters have given thumbs down to homosexual marriage (Hawaii) and assisted suicide (Michigan) in initiatives this past November. New Yorkers like the idea: polls show support at over 70 percent.
Initiative and referendum, which has been around in the U.S. since 1898, is not an instrument for everyday use. As Teddy Roosevelt put it in 1912: “Initiative and Referendum . . . should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes unrepresentative.” The road to I & R in New York would be crater-filled. To get the constitutional amendment authorizing it, two consecutive legislatures have to say yes. Then voters would have to agree in a referendum. Given the lack of enthusiasm legislators have shown for the idea—Republican State Senator Frank Padovan from New York City has introduced legislation for years to see it go nowhere—we could be waiting quite a while.
Though term limits, a likely outcome of initiative and referendum, will cost New Yorkers an effective mayor, they guarantee that politicians can’t build vast self-serving empires. Almost everywhere that they’ve been put on ballots, voters support them, and nationwide polls consistently show 80 percent support for the idea. According to Conservative Party chief Michael Long, “Term limits would break Albany open: instead of career politicians, you’d have legislators coming to Albany with a clear vision of what they wanted to do.” They’re worth considering. Because everything that Gotham needs to ready itself for the twenty-first century—good schools, thriving businesses, safe streets, bountiful housing—requires Albany’s acquiescence, the Legislature must free itself from the tight grip of special interests and obsolete ideas and become once again a democratic institution.