Daniel L. Feldman

Archive for the ‘New York State Government’ Category

Centralization of power

In New York State Politics, Criminal Justice Policy, Policy, New York State Government on September 16, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Two years after I returned to my normal life in the Assembly after the 1989 race for District Attorney, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York convicted Mel Miller for cheating clients of his law firm out of profits they made on a transaction.  Two years later the federal Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, holding that the clients had no clear right to the profits in the first place. Under New York State law, Miller had to give up his elective office when he was initially convicted of the felony. The law has no provision for returning his office to him upon the reversal of such a conviction.

Stanley Fink and Mel Miller, as Speakers of the Assembly, wielded enormous power over members’ staff allocations, member items, and even which of their bills would become law. However, they led their Democratic majority as small “d” as well as large “D” democrats: they were good at judging what policy direction the majority of our caucus wanted to pursue, but checked to make sure they were right – and no member of the Democratic caucus hesitated to disagree, even forcefully, with those Speakers behind the closed door of our conferences. Some members, like me, even had open and public disagreements with the Assembly leadership, and were promoted, not punished. In my effort to change New York’s transactional immunity law to the much more typical state and federal “use immunity” law, I fought against Mel Miller when he chaired the Codes Committee. New York prosecutors had explained to me how it allowed some criminal defendants to get away with crimes – with murder, in the case of Delissa Carter – because it immunized them from prosecution related to any event about which they testified before a grand jury. I failed to change the law, but the New York Post praised me for my effort and lambasted Mel. Nevertheless, he gave me the first committee chairmanship at his disposal when he became Speaker.

Stanley had told committee chairs, “I decide the budget. You decide everything else.” This was mostly but not entirely true. First, the committee chairs always included two or three nitwits, and no Speaker allowed them to exercise any significant power. But those were exceptions. More generally, no legislature could have a dozens of legislators each deciding how much money to allocate to individual parts of the budget: to education, prisons, health, and so forth. Naturally the committee chair for each such area would tend to “break the bank” on behalf of the constituencies he or she most deals with, and to try to solve the problems for which he or she had most responsibility. Someone has to be able to weigh the great variety of needs against each other, and settle on allocations that would not, in the aggregate, bankrupt the state.  However, Stanley and Mel carefully consulted committee chairs for the more detailed information and therefore superior grasp of budgetary nuance each chair was likely to command, and took that information and nuance into serious consideration in shaping their decisions. On the other hand, while committee chairs made policy in their respective substantive areas, they were only permitted to do so within the general parameters of what the Democratic majority caucus would allow, and the Speaker enforced those limits.

But in my very first year as chair of corrections, I negotiated significant changes to the kinds of sentences low-level drug offenders would serve. Larry Kurlander, Governor Cuomo’s Criminal Justice Coordinator, Chris Mega, the Republican chair of the Senate Committee on Crime and Correction, who became my good friend thereafter, and I agreed to establish shock incarceration and earned eligibility, two programs that significantly reduced time actually incarcerated for many inmates. We each understood the range of choices we were each respectively allowed, but that range was broad enough so that prior to our negotiations most of our colleagues probably never even heard of the programs we decided to approve.

After Mel had to relinquish his office, things changed. My preferred candidate for Speaker, Jim Tallon, from Binghamton, would doubtless have continued in the mold of Stanley and Mel. But Jim’s gentlemanly qualities deterred him from the aggressive campaigning that might have won the job. Although Saul Weprin was also an extremely nice man, his key backers, Michael Bragman and Sheldon Silver, provided enough aggressive politicking on his behalf for Saul to win overwhelmingly.

Weprin died less than two years later, and may well have been more seriously ill than we recognized even from the start of his speakership. His counsel, Ben Chevat, moved to consolidate power – whether truly on Saul’s account, or in the interests of Bragman and Silver, remains unknown.

Although they were paid out of the Assembly’s central staff allocation, not out of my committee budget, I had been accustomed to selecting my committee staff and expecting them to follow my direction, unless of course they offered ideas I liked, which they often did. A few months after Saul’s accession to the Speakership, my program associate, Dick McDonald, shocked me by informing me that he could not work on a policy project I had asked him to pursue (I no longer remember the subject). He explained that Carol Gerstl, his “team leader,” had decided against it, and that Chevat had been informed that they were now to take direction from their staff chain of command, not from their committee chairs.

I collected my colleagues who chaired Codes, Judiciary, and Government Employees, all of whose staffs reported to Gerstl, and demanded a meeting with Weprin. Chevat tried to meet us, but we bypassed him, and explained to Weprin that he would have four immediate committee chair resignations if our power to direct our committee staff was not restored. Weprin immediately agreed.

When Silver succeeded Weprin, however, sometimes subtly and sometimes more overtly, central staff gradually usurped much of the power of committee chairs anyway. This did not improve my relationship with Silver, or endear us to each other.




How a politician publicly supports shortening sentences for drug dealers, and survives anyway

In New York State Politics, NYC Politics, Criminal Justice Policy, Policy, New York State Government on September 6, 2012 at 8:27 pm

In my first few years representing the 45th Assembly District, constituents regularly called me to complain about drug dealers peddling their wares in front of a building on Avenue K near Coney Island Avenue. The building stood just a block northern of my district, but the unsavory atmosphere there troubled my nearby voters. In response, I would call the captain of Brooklyn’s 70th Police Precinct, who would send officers to make arrests.

However, weeks later my constituents would call again, complaining that “they let the drug dealers out: they are back on Avenue K again.”

Back in Albany, Speaker Fink asked members of our Democratic caucus who similarly complained that judges let drug dealers go free how, then, we managed to increase our state prison population from 12,500 in 1972 to 40,000 by the early 1980s? I think he understood, and I gradually learned, that judges did lock up many of those drug dealers. Other drug dealers just replaced them very quickly, because so many addicts wanted those jobs to help pay for their own supplies.

Indeed, many a judge would sentence a drug dealer, after a first felony arrest, to time served waiting for trial and probation. But the addicted dealer, quickly back on the street, would be just as quickly arrested again. This time, the Second Felony Offender Law would require the judge to sentence the dealer to prison for at least two years.

In an earlier time, dealers peddling heroin would try to carry too small a quantity at a time to constitute “felony weight,” so that judges could continue to sentence them to probation. But dealers in the cocaine and crack era seemed to have less sense, and generally carried large enough quantities to be hit with felonies.

I began to understand that with about 600,000 addicts in the State, we would never run short of drug dealers. With 40,000 inmates, we needed to cannibalize higher education funding to help defray the cost of the State prison system; we could not very well incarcerate several hundred thousand inmates and keep the State solvent. Therefore, massive incarceration of low-level non-violent addict/sellers was not going to solve our drug problem.

Like voters throughout New York City and New York State at the time, mine were not generally anxious to hear that we should stop locking up drug dealers. But I told them anyway. Because I had consistently voted for the death penalty (a decision I made then to help preserve the legitimacy of the State government in the face of an increasingly rebellious citizenry), because I had championed other initiatives sought by law enforcement, even in the face of opposition by my own Democratic Assembly leaders, and because I had helped and supported my constituents on landlord-tenant issues, consumer issues, property tax issues, and transportation issues, I was able to carry my message without jeopardizing my reelection. I may even have persuaded some.

When arguing with my constituents, however, I tried to couch the message not so much in terms of the criminalization of people who did not fit standard criminal profiles except in terms of feeding their addictions, the destruction of families, the waste of human lives, or the unfair treatment suffered by minorities. Rather, I pointed to the need to use expensive prison space for violent criminals, the increased tax burden, and the decrease in college scholarship aid likely to be available to their children.

I did not succeed in enacting my legislation to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws. Eleven years after I left the Legislature, though, others completed that mission. I like to think that I helped lay the groundwork.

Getting there and back

In New York State Politics, New York State Government on August 24, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Post #93

For my first nine years as a member of the Assembly, I drove there and back. Actually, Larry Pinkoff, who ran my 1980 campaign, drove me there and back my first year, before he departed for Florida and another career. I was told that there was at one time something called a “permit for take-off and landing from the New York State Thruway.” We used to joke that Larry must have had one. He regularly drove the 160-mile trip in less than two hours, door to door. Readers from other areas must understand that with the roads from southern Brooklyn through northern Manhattan included in that route, his performance was phenomenal – also, to me, terrifying. But he got me to my meetings on time, at either end.

I remained among the few legislators who refused to get Assembly license plates for my car, because I felt that state legislators should not seek or get special treatment from the police. I had to do my own driving, starting with the 1982 session, but this did not pose a problem, because I was a notoriously slow driver. Shortly after legislative session ended, unless we were scheduled for session on the following day as well, dozens of cars would emerge from the legislators’ parking lot under the Empire State Plaza and head down the Thruway. They all seemed to pass me.

Since I have always walked fast, the word among my colleagues was that “Feldman walks faster than he drives.” So I never got stopped by the State Troopers. When they saw the Assembly or Senate plates on the cars of my speeding colleagues, the Troopers would indeed stop them, but then simply warn them to slow down. Some speculated that the Legislature’s traditional alacrity in approving pay increases for the Troopers may have influenced this behavior.

At one point during the mid-1980s, my late colleague Leonard Stavisky noticed some State Troopers sleeping in their patrol cars, known as “cooping,” and got some press attention when he publicly criticized the practice. His best known legacy, the 1976 Stavisky-Goodman law, a major accomplishment, limits the degree to which New York City can cut funding for education in any given annual budget.  Stavisky, a college professor as well as a legislator, had a fine intellect and a good heart, but so lacked interpersonal skills it remains amazing that he achieved elective office. Colleagues cruelly referred to him as “Major Hoople,” after a big and big-bellied grandiose windbag of a comic strip character originating in 1921. After Stavisky’s press release, the State Troopers started issuing speeding tickets to legislators. A few weeks later, big placards began to appear in the rear windshields of legislators’ cars: “We Hate Stavisky Too!” The ticketing stopped.

My $7000 1980 Dodge Aries K-car, Betsy, loyally gave me over 180,000 miles, almost all of it in the service of my legislative life. After 1989, however, I had switched to using the train. I didn’t see so well at night, especially when trying to drive home in snowstorms, and as I got older, I got more tired. On the train I could sleep, read, or catch up with paperwork. So I allowed Betsy to semi-retire: it became my “train car” in Albany. From the legislative garage to my rented room in Albany only took about fifteen minutes to drive on the nights I stayed over, and from the garage to the Amtrak station in Rensselaer only took about five minutes. Even for that purpose, though, George Dunbrook and his brother, who ran the gas station at Lark and Madison, finally told me it was too old: time for full retirement.  I couldn’t give it up. One night though, a few hundred yards from the train station, I heard a noise I have never heard before or since, and hope never to hear again. I cannot describe it, but it was the sound of a car dying – a sound so definitive you know it will never start again. Rest in peace, Betsy.

Inside Politics Versus Outside Politics

In New York State Politics, New York State Government on August 17, 2012 at 9:59 am

The final days of my first session in Albany late in June coincided with the last days before expiration of the main contracts with public employee unions in New York. Since those unions had agreed to give-backs and even had placed their pension funds at risk in order to help New York City through its fiscal crisis, they had for several months pressed the Legislature to enact legislation improving their benefits under the next contract. The various public employee unions – sanitation workers, the public employee locals of the teamsters, firefighters, and others – chose as their point person for the battle Norman Adler, then the legislative director of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the largest union of New York City public employees. Adler, an extraordinarily intelligent and persuasive advocate, had also been one of my favorite professors in college, and arranged for his union to send letters of support for me to its many members in my district, and to send some members to work in my campaign, when I first ran for the Assembly – the only major union to get involved at all.

Norman lobbied me, as he must have lobbied virtually every other legislator, making strong arguments on the basis of equity and fairness. The Democrats in the Assembly had caucused the issue several times, with Speaker Fink explaining that Governor Carey said he would veto any bill we passed that did more than simply extend existing benefits. If the Governor vetoed the bill, with the old contracts having expired, until a new contract could be authorized the public employees would have no insurance coverage or other benefits. But Adler had argued that Carey would not dare veto the bill. Adler believed that Carey planned to bluff us into passivity.

I approached Fink privately, and explained my dilemma. I told him how much I owed to Norman, and that it would be very hard to say no to him. Fink replied, “That’s fine. When you need money for staff, ask Norman.” Of course only the Speaker controlled staff allocations  — and virtually everything else I would need to be an effective legislator.

Senior Assembly members like Frank Barbaro, chair of the Labor Committee, and José Serrano, chair of the Consumer Affairs Committee, with well-established pro-labor credentials, supported Fink’s position. If I voted only to extend the old benefits, though, perhaps Adler and the unions he represented would see me as an ingrate, and perhaps they would be right. Was Carey bluffing? I didn’t know.

Fink called a final Democratic conference on the matter the day we would have to take a vote. I intended to make my case to the Democratic conference as a whole: how could I, as a junior legislator, elected with strong support from Adler’s union, vote for the extender? I waited as other Democrats, in turn, spoke on various aspects of the controversy. Just as I got up to speak, Fink – who had apparently just received a message – asked me if I would suffer an interruption. Of course I acceded. With my colleagues, I waited as he left the room. About ten minutes later, he returned, and announced to the Conference – “Adler says it’s okay to vote for the bill.” I felt no further compulsion to speak.

Later, I learned that he left the conference to meet with Adler. Friends though they were, Fink had laced into Adler with the considerable ferocity of which he was capable, essentially indicating that Adler had better withdraw what was in effect a challenge to Adler’s leadership of the Democratic Conference. Adler, powerful and articulate though he was, knew better than to risk seriously alienating Fink.

When the bill came to the floor, a few members, knowing that the extender would pass, voted “no” anyway, apparently on the thought that some of the labor unions would be grateful for their refusal to go along. Legislators have a word for making oneself look good at the expense of colleagues like that: it’s called “grandstanding” (“playing to the grandstands”). The extender did of course pass, Carey signed it into law, and we all went home to our districts.

I enjoyed the sense of relief, because I had not had to choose between Fink and Adler, for weeks after the vote.  Sitting in my district office one summer afternoon going through my mail, I perused a newsletter from a small local of one of the public employee unions affected by our vote. I was annoyed to read its effusive praise for the “grandstanders.” Then, to my great distress, I saw my name in a list of legislators labeled “traitors” for having voted for the extender. My distress turned to fury when I saw that the names of well-known friends of organized labor, such as Barbaro and Serrano, who had like me also voted for the extender, were omitted, when their inclusion might have signaled that the leadership of organized labor had acquiesced in our decision. Then I turned the page. A shorter, separate list included their names: it was labeled “lickspittles.” I felt better.

Assemblyman Charles Schumer

In New York State Government on July 29, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Sun Tzu referred to the saying, apparently well known in his time, that “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Chapter 3, section 18, transl. of Sun Tzu on the Art of War by Lionel Giles, 1910, originally written 6th century B.C.

Most of us think knowing yourself is the easy part, but we are wrong. Politicians, including myself, tend to fall prey to self-delusion. Once I got into office, like many others, I would happily peruse my press coverage. On some level, consciously or not, I assumed that the voters absorbed the same information. Of course they did not – certainly not the vast majority.

Schumer never made that mistake. When he was a member of the Assembly, he managed to win more press attention, sometimes, than the rest of the Legislature put together. He also hit all the morning subway stops, all the graduation ceremonies from elementary school up, all the lobby meetings to organize tenant associations, every community organization meeting, and he was a loud and visible presence. His voice was so loud that it occurred to me once to think that perhaps he had a compact bullhorn implanted in his chest.

Nonetheless, I remember him storming into the office one morning, listing all the things he did to make himself known, and ranting that half the voters still didn’t know who he was – “they could be dead for all the impact I make on them!,” or words to that effect. We got some poll numbers: he was right that only about half of the voters recognized his name at that point – but other local elected officials had a fraction of his name recognition levels. This did not satisfy Schumer.
Everyone who has watched Schumer in action credits his enormous and varied political skills. Since most people underestimate the power of self-delusion, however, they underestimate the significance of his strong grasp on reality. When I worked for him, he was brash, shameless, coarse. He really did epitomize the old and unfair image of the obnoxious, pushy Jew. But he was quite aware of all this, took it into account, factored it into his calculations, and proceeded accordingly.

Some of his other skills drew me to him. He understood me better than I understood him at the time. He knew how to recruit to his service my passion for honesty in government. I expected that we would expose corruption, outrage the power structure, and lose our funding. After all, the Assembly Speaker, Stanley Fink, came out of the clubhouse of Meade Esposito himself, the Democratic County Leader of Brooklyn, and while I had heard good things about Fink in the legislative context, surely attacks on corruption would rile the established power structure, and therefore Esposito and his allies. Therefore, I thought I would work for Chuck for a year or two before he’d be forced to let me go, and I’d search for another job.

But Schumer knew better. He told someone once that I was an “unguided missile,” but he guided me. He had no problem with much of my agenda: having run the Summer Food Program investigation, I knew we would find good targets in New York City’s drug abuse treatment programs when I saw some of the same crooks in management positions. My instincts and background also led me to real estate issues, generally a fertile ground for financial shenanigans. But sensing my inability to resist a challenge, Schumer also kept me busy learning new fields, like rail freight and criminal justice system capacity, areas in which I could help him build his own expertise while perhaps diverting me from investigations that might prove more dangerous to Schumer’s ambitions.

We made a great team. I wrote solid and comprehensive reports both on the muckraking side and on the pure policy side, and Schumer converted almost all of them into great headline stories that got tremendous press coverage. The press coverage generated reforms: we closed the City unsalvageable drug abuse programs and cleaned up the merely dirty ones; we stopped the City from selling back buildings taken for tax arrears to the same sleazy landlords who had milked them dry and lost them in the first place; we even stopped a City University campus from cheating the State out of tuition reimbursements. Of course I took great satisfaction in all this. Reforming Government, my 1981 book referenced in an earlier blog, tells some of these stories, and they were good ones too.

Schumer drew me closer to him personally with great charm, intelligence, and humor. He could be extremely funny. I will never forget Schumer’s brilliant spot-on mimicry of a fictional argument between Ed Koch and Al Lowenstein, perfectly caricaturing the verbal tics and foibles of each. I think Schumer knew how much I admired Al, but Schumer’s performance was just too hilarious. Of course no one foresaw Al Lowenstein’s tragic demise a few years later.
We went out to dinner together, usually in Chinatown. A fair trencherman myself, Chuck gave me a good run for my money. I cooked Chinese dinners for him and his wife-to-be at my father’s house in Rockaway. I truly thought of him as my friend.
It quickly became clear that I had seriously underestimated Chuck’s political abilities. Not only did our subcommittee not get defunded, in less than one year, as of January 1978, Speaker Fink reconstituted it as a full committee, the Committee on Oversight & Investigation, with Chuck as chair and me as counsel.

Shortly before that, with my mother having died four years earlier and my father unable to deal as a co-resident with my brother’s psychiatric difficulties, my father sold our family house in Belle Harbor and moved to a small apartment in Rego Park in mainland Queens. I moved in with my aunt and uncle in Manhattan Beach. Coincidentally, Schumer’s Assembly district happened to include that neighborhood.

A few months prior, in the late spring of 1977, only a few months after I had started working for Schumer, Liz called me. The Assembly member for what was then the 42nd District, David Greenberg, once known as the hero police officer nicknamed “Batman,” had recently been convicted of fraud. Liz thought I might want to run for the seat. But I had no real connection to that district, centered at the time in the eastern half of Sheepshead Bay while Schumer’s 45th District included the western half. Also, my loss in 1974 seemed too recent for me to contemplate another run right away, and I was greatly enjoying my work with Schumer.

Excerpt #2 from Tales from the Sausage Factory: Compromise, Tolerance, and Symbolism

In General, New York State Government, New York State Politics, NYC Politics, Policy on October 10, 2010 at 11:52 am

The legislature — avenue for compromise:

The legislative process actually improves participants’ behavior in some respects. Since legislators must negotiate to win enactment of bills, they learn to consider viewpoints quite different than their own. Some of my ultra-Orthodox Jewish constituents vehemently objected to my refusal to support legislation that I thought was unconstitutional, banning pornography. Fred Schmidt, probably the most conservative Democratic member of our House, and among the most conservative of either party, sat next to me for twelve years. Responding to his own very conservative and mostly Roman Catholic constituents, Fred had a bill prohibiting the public display of racy magazines that I thought I could revise into constitutionally acceptable form. I could, I did, and the Schmidt-Feldman bill became law, of course with conservative Republican sponsorship in the Senate.

Legislative coalitions often open minds to the reality that people can differ dramatically on what kind of society we should have (within some limits – I don’t think any of us were totalitarians) and still respect the intelligence and integrity with which they hold their views.

The legislator as “social glue”

I came to understand another aspect of my role in the seemingly endless string of evenings and weekends dropping in on meetings: the East 22nd Street Block Association (or any of dozens of other block associations); the Sheepshead Bay Kiwanis Club; the Plumb Beach Civic Association; the St. Edmund’s Home School Association; the Beth El Synagogue Men’s Club; the Midwood Development Corporation; the Meyer Levin Post of the Jewish War Veterans; the P.S. 195 Parent-Teacher Association, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

My presence brought the State to them. Even more, it conferred the imprimatur of the State, the dignity of the State, on them and legitimized their work. By visiting the various organizations, I served the function of a sort of social glue: I cemented all these groups into the polity, into the political fabric that makes up the State. This dignity, this acceptance, was for them a significant psychological reward for their past efforts and incentive for their future efforts on behalf of their communities.

Perception is reality

From time to time my constituents saw me on television. When they told me they saw me I’d ask, “What was I saying?” More often than not, they’d reply, “I don’t know. But I saw you!” This enhanced and strengthened my ability to confer dignity and inclusion into the greater world [by their association with me]. Since they could see that I held citizenship in TV-land, not only was I part of the State, I was important enough to join in the world of Jay Leno, Derek Jeter,  Roseanne, Mickey Mouse, the President, and Oprah Winfrey. Anyone who lives in that little box shares in the world of the people who really matter [in their view], so that my corporeal presence in their own actual living rooms or shabby meeting halls gave them a bridge to that “important” world.

Many, many people understood this function better than I did. After I rewrote Fred Schmidt’s bill into the Schmidt-Feldman law, the publisher of Screw magazine, Al Goldstein, debated me on a local New York City TV station. Wearing a t-shirt imprinted with pictures of tiny sperm, he scoffed at our legislation, which he maintained – incorrectly – would suppress the display of his tee shirt. He challenged my ethical and legislative priorities, along the lines of “instead of fighting violence and poverty, you’re trying to suppress freedom of speech!” After the show, as we were unclipping our microphones, he leaned over and assured me that we had written a sound and sensible piece of legislation, “but I couldn’t say so – that wouldn’t make good TV.” Though I hadn’t known it, I had participated in a fictional debate, but its political value to him and to me, and perhaps even its educational value to the audience, would have been no greater had he been sincere.

Excerpts from Tales from the Sausage Factory: We Need the Legislature, Good or Bad – or Good and Bad

In New York State Government on September 30, 2010 at 8:51 am

By March 2010, one State Senator darkly joked that he longed for the days of “dysfunction” – at least it “has function in its title.”

It is hard to imagine, but about forty years earlier the New York State Legislature . . .was considered a model of institutional professionalism. In a 1971 report, it was one of four that received the highest ranking available from the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures. (The others were California, Illinois and Florida.)

Quinnipiac University polls New Yorkers’ attitudes toward “the way the state legislature is handling its job,” and regularly finds – urban, suburban or rural, male or female, upstate or down – that less than a third approve.

Does the Legislature deserve all the disapprobation that is heaped on it? Some say not. Syracuse University political scientist Jeffrey Stonecash, for instance, has said the idea that the New York State Legislature is dysfunctional a “myth.” According to Stonecash, “what takes place in Albany is just normal haggling over policy.” Long-time Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Democrat from Westchester County, has asserted in The New York Times “Although in the last few years there have been things the Legislature has had to improve, most things we do well.”

Brodsky went on to attribute the New York State Legislature’s problematic reputation to bad public relations. “We’ve been very effectively Swift-boated as dysfunctional, ineffective and corrupt,” he said. “And it’s our fault. We have never gotten the message out in a coherent way of what we do well and right.”

Stonecash and Brodsky overstate the case. The legislature has been performing dismally, and is in major need of reform. But, to be fair, [Feldman and Benjamin remind us, drawing upon Feldman’s eighteen years of service in the Assembly and writing in his voice,] state legislators do some things well.

Good or bad – good AND bad – we need it

Legislatures are not simply arenas for rational problem solving. They are places in which society’s emotional and psychological needs are manifested, manipulated and addressed.

Efforts to change laws are meaningful. The bills introduced to reform the Rockefeller drug laws, for instance, and the widely publicized arguments by politicians who supported them – did constitute a kind of “official” response. The fact that some part of the government – the legislators advancing reform ideas – is “trying to make things better” can bring satisfaction to members of the public who want change. Society is stronger when we have faith in our democratic institutions.

I'm just a bill

On the other hand, efforts without outcomes over many years are delegitimizing, as we have seen in the corrosive effects of New York State’s persistently late budgets. A regularly demonstrated incapacity to reach a result inevitably undermines public confidence in government. Comparative high taxation, questionable state fiscal health, and regional unemployment also contribute to voter hostility.

As we seek to appreciate the Legislature’s strengths as well as its shortcomings, the institution defies definitive characterization. Like all political institutions, it continues to evolve – sometimes in mysterious ways. For those who care about government and policymaking, the mystery is part of the attraction.

Can Americans Handle the Truth? (Part II)

In National Politics, New York State Government, New York State Politics, Policy on September 6, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Sometimes it appears that every New Yorker feels aggrieved at the “unfair” benefit someone else has. The homeowner decries the rent-stabilized tenant, who gets such a great deal on his beautiful apartment. The tenant notes the mortgage interest deduction on federal taxes that the homeowner takes for granted, but puts tens of thousands of dollars in his pocket. The elderly citizen may resent high property taxes that pay for someone else’s children to go to school.

FICA takes a big bite out of the young parent’s paycheck to provide Social Security payments that she doubts will be around for her when she gets old. “Keep your dirty government hands off my Medicare or Medicaid,” they said, in fear of “Obama-care,” incredibly forgetting that Medicare and Medicaid come from government hands. The pensions of government employees are the latest bête noir; how soon we forget the firefighters and police who risked or lost their lives or health at the burning buildings at Ground Zero.

Of course there are abuses by some; and recessions, as has recently been noted, follow peaks in inequality driven by the greedy few in this country whose share of the national product is hundreds or thousands of times that of those who work for them. But overall, we tend to lay the blame for our ills on large categories of our fellow citizens who are no more guilty than we are, while we zealously guard the benefits we ourselves enjoy, mostly without acknowledging even to ourselves that we are lucky to have them.

This reflects the same instinct that has us re-elect legislators who bring construction projects or other forms of largesse to our neighborhoods, while decrying the spendthrift ways of Albany or Washington.  The “hypocritical” politicians simply reflect their voters when they call for budget cuts while grabbing all the “pork” they can. The gridlock and dysfunction in Albany and Washington, to a great extent, reflect the incompatible tasks we assign our representatives there. We simply want it all. 

The founders of our nation wanted to “promote the general welfare.” Even before the Constitution, foundational documents like the Mayflower Compact reflected their authors’ pledge to pursue “the General good of the Colony.” Selfish ends were commonly subordinated to the common good, to be achieved through the public sphere.

But today we treat the public sphere as Garrett Hardin portrayed herdsmen in his article “The Tragedy of the Commons”: each herdsman calculates that an additional sheep will gain him its full price, while its effect on overgrazing the pasture (the “commons”) will be borne by all the herdsmen, so his cost will only be his proportionate fraction. Therefore, he should keep adding sheep. Of course, since each herdsman calculates the same way, the commons will soon be destroyed for everyone.

As we face this electoral season, consider that it is long past time for us to outgrow the childish notion that untrammeled selfishness and greed benefits our society, or indeed is even tolerable. We must start with our selves: let’s try to support candidates who will not necessarily appeal to our personal short-term interests, but to the common interests of our society.  Let them, and us, commit ourselves to “promote the general welfare.”

How to Revive New York’s Non-Financial Sectors

In New York State Government, Policy on August 8, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Let’s go a little deeper into this question of letting wealthy hedge fund managers pay much lower tax rates than the rest of us. Assuming Congress continues their federal tax break, New York would, indeed, risk their flight out of New York altogether should it impose a higher state tax. But that raises a much larger question. Does New York have to be so much at the mercy of the financial sector, or so dependent on it that it cannot afford to risk the occasional departure of some its wealthiest practitioners? The answer is no.

For a number of years, Cassandras have warned that New York was allowing itself to become much too dependent on the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) sector.  [A 1999 report acknowledges, but underestimates the problem.]

What happened to New York’s great garment industry, printing industry, and many other kinds of light manufacturing? The common answer is that we lost them to competition from lower-wage areas of the country, and then the world.  But New York lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the 1970s as a result of the decline of its preeminence as a freight transportation center.

Yes, that’s hundreds of thousands – when today, a loss of 2000 jobs is considered a disaster, and politicians thirst for the opportunity to claim credit for bringing in a few hundreds jobs.

In the mid-19th century, and probably through the 1950s, more freight came through the Port of New York than through the rest of the country’s ports put together.   Cargo crossed the Hudson by “carfloats” – barges that carried railway cars, from and to the railheads in New Jersey, hundreds of them every day.  Cargo came directly by rail across the Poughkeepsie Bridge. It came in, either for consumption by New Yorkers and other Americans east of the Hudson, or for shipment to Europe by freighters docked in Brooklyn or Manhattan, and it went out, from New York manufacturers by rail to markets in the west.

But New York’s political leadership took the Port for granted. New York City imposed a four percent railroad cargo transfer tax on the gross receipts (not the profits) of freight moved from one kind of carrier to another, from rail to ship, say; the Poughkeepsie Bridge burned down in 1974 and was not replaced; and we made a deal that allowed the Port Authority to give the container port to New Jersey and the World Trade Center to New York.  Results? New York manufacturers face a competitive disadvantages with manufacturers in any city that did not have to pay truckers to sit on the Gowanus Parkway or the Cross Bronx Expressway for hours in order to get their cargo to the railhead in New Jersey; and New York consumers have to pay a premium for products shipped to them over the same routes in the other direction.

For over thirty years Member of Congress Jerrold Nadler has urged the construction of a rail freight tunnel under the Hudson. Nothing could revive New York’s economy more effectively, making New York manufacturers competitive once again, easing pollution, and lowering prices for consumers east of the river.

New York has fallen prey to the notion that only the highest-end businesses should thrive here: the FIRE sector, and maybe medical services and high-tech. But New York has always thrived, and has only thrived, because ambitious poor people come here to improve their lives. They may become great entrepreneurs or doctors or artists some day, but first they need good entry-level jobs, which manufacturing used to provide and could again.

New York does not have to remain at the mercy of the FIRE sector. With a revived manufacturing sector, we would not need to say “how high?” when the hedge fund managers say “jump.”

You may be thinking that what is wrong with New York in this way is a synecdoche for what is wrong with the United States: we produce too little in the way of real things, with our mostly unproductive financial sector – the big casino – gobbling up way too much money, time, and talent. You’re right.

New York’s New Late Budget

In New York State Government, New York State Politics on August 5, 2010 at 9:30 pm

In a few weeks, Tales from the Sausage Factory will hit the bookstores. Its subtitle explains its scope: Making Laws in New York State. But making laws in New York State involves more than just the Legislature and the Governor.

The political environment that shapes those laws integrates vertically, up to Congress in Washington and down to City Hall in Manhattan and to city halls and county seats throughout the State; and horizontally, to courts, interest groups, media, civic groups, and especially to political movements and organizations.

So the book, and the continuing tales from the sausage factory to be found here, covers a wide territory.

Sometime last spring the publisher told us to stop writing, so it could actually publish the book.  That was tough, because the New York State Legislature kept giving us good fodder for comment. Here, though, we can pick up where we left off.

Let’s start with some recent news: the Legislature completed the budget earlier this week. Not the tardiest budget in history – that was August 11, 2004 – but close.

One of the issues that held up passage was the fight to “empower” SUNY and CUNY colleges to set their own tuition rates and in other ways have more autonomy. Some upstate legislators, especially Senator Bill Stachowski from Buffalo, hoped this would strengthen their local public college campuses as economic engines for their communities. Most downstate legislators feared that it could put tuition out of reach for financially strapped students. Ultimately, Stachowski and his allies had to settle for the equivalent of a study commission.

Another hang-up was the effort to tax hedge fund managers more heavily.

These managers, some of the highest-income people in the world, pay capital gains tax, at only 15 percent, on most of their income, not the 28 percent or 33 percent that most people have to pay, based on the income tax schedule. The Working Families Party is to the Democratic Party in New York something like what the Conservative Party is to the Republican Party. Working Families, reflecting outrage over this fact, argued that New York State should solve its budget problems in large part by taxing these extremely wealthy people more heavily.

But Mayor Bloomberg and the legislative leadership defeated the effort, pointing out that if New York did this, the hedge funds – which still contribute a very hefty sum to New York’s tax revenues – could escape by moving out. Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell helped by asking a few such hedge fund honchos to lunch, over which she very publicly asked them to move to her State.

Of course, if there were a national tax, the hedge fund managers could not simply escape a heavier tax burden by moving to a different state. A few years ago Senator Charles Schumer was among the leaders of the opposition to the effort in Washington to raise the national tax rate paid by hedge fund managers.

So the hedge fund managers escaped the tax, and the new New York State budget has its new taxes on the common folk, as well as the usual structural weaknesses, and the likelihood of real holes leaving us vulnerable to further “adjustments” later in the year and bigger problems next year.

More later on why we are so vulnerable to the hedge fund managers and others of their ilk.