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The Primal Scream for Reform


It has become a cliché that the New York state legislature is dysfunctional.  And to most observers, the failure to pass a budget is just another manifestation.  I dissent from this view.   The State legislature has actually been quite busy, and with important matters.   It is, definitely, functional. 

For instance, within the last year, the legislature passed ethics reform (although the Governor vetoed it), rules reform enabling bipartisan participation in Senate committee leadership, some public authorities law modifications, Rockefeller Drug Law reform, charter school reform, government consolidation legislation and no fault divorce among other things.

The problem is not with the lack of effort of these legislators.  The problem is that they seem unable to tackle really tough things, like the budget.  But, before we criticize our legislators too severely, it may be useful to observe this tendency in our own lives:  to be engaged in respectable effort but come up short on matters of enduring value. 

Most of us occupy ourselves for days, weeks, even years with the apparent demands of everyday life, but find excuses to avoid  more durable investments, such as cultivating closer relationships with our children, long term family financial planning, or researching new job opportunities that can increase our personal satisfaction.

In both cases, in government and in our personal lives, the failure to address matters of real value leads to profound personal dissatisfaction, and, ultimately to blame, usually of others.  In politics, the vehicle for diverting personal responsibility to blaming others, is the political party.  More on this in a moment.

Let’s first ask, how is it possible that serious people in Albany can be so intensely engaged but fail to discharge the truly urgent.   Many pundits say it is the deteriorating ethical environment in Albany.  I’m not so sure of this.   Seriously, does a Governor’s use of complimentary Yankee tickets or a lobbyist picking up a legislator’s tab for dinner have that much to do with the systemic failure to discharge the public good?

No, there is a void in Albany bigger than lack of ethics.  It is lack of imagination, or to put it another way, the absence of a sense of purpose strong enough to take risks on behalf of the common good.  Imagination and risk are at the heart of our success as a nation.  The willingness to embark on a journey through unmapped territory is an American hallmark.  

Examples abound in our history:   Jefferson’s plan for a network of roads and bridges throughout the Louisiana Purchase, the Erie Canal, Lincoln’s launching of the Transcontinental Railroad during the depths of the Civil War, and his land grant colleges plan, and the Homestead Act, Teddy Roosevelt’s system of national parks, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the GI Bill, the national highway system, social security, the Peace Corps, the SUNY university system, and New York’s pioneering investment in hydroelectric power fifty years ago. 

These towering achievements occurred at a time when people looked to the government for big ideas and the government delivered.   Government was a partner with the people, igniting their imagination, promoting their aspirations and safeguarding their interests.  Today, no one expects much from the government and the government obliges.  But the blame for this situation cannot be placed solely at the doorstep of today’s politicians.

The genesis of this culture of governmental degradation was the ridicule heaped on it by Ronald Reagan.  The “great communicator” communicated the devastating message that the government’s bank of big ideas was bankrupt.  Placing the blame for our problems on the government satisfied those who like to blame others, but it left a permanent scar on the American psyche.  “Morning in America”,  Reagan’s invocation to a resurgence of national pride, has turned into a nightmare of unrequited dreams for our collective future.

Reagan’s successors, including Clinton who ratified financial reforms that led to our current distress, but especially Bush II, contributed to the dislodgement of government from key roles in protecting the people’s collective right to honest investment advice from brokers, responsible bank use of assets, the safety of our food, the purity of our water, the reliability of our energy, dependability of our travel, the sanctity of our environment, and so forth. 

At the bottom of this slide we find ourselves in an Orwellian reality where government is not the big brother, but where business is the abusive father.   The wreckage of our economy done by the financial industry has been, perhaps, unimaginably, surpassed by the oil industry’s wreckage of our environment.  These are acts done with shattering displays of nonchalance and smug self assurance that would have been unthinkable thirty years ago.

Distaste of government is so great, that federal responses to these financial and environmental catastrophes have been hesitant and ineffective.  And here at home, in New York, the government’s response to the budget crisis has been similarly ineffectual.   No political party will allow its members to take a lead on a budget that makes cuts or contains new spending, even on critical investments, if it involves new indebtedness. 

Because the political parties cannot be counted upon to deliver solutions to big problems, Lt. Governor Ravitch suggested that a Financial Review Board be constituted to make these decisions.  Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Cuomo, while endorsing some of these points, was right to point out that the budget process cannot be subcontracted out to a non-elected financial board. 

So the question becomes, how to de-politicize the process that depends on people elected through the political process.  Well, first of all, it doesn’t take much to see that “five men in a room” is not a reliable way of producing a budget.  This is because the duty of party leaders to advance their party’s tactical advantage over the other party, is greater than their duty to the good of the collective, i.e. passing a budget.  Until the priorities are reversed, we’ll never get an on time budget, or a gimmick free one. 

The burden of passing a budget, and ultimately, to curing the so called “dysfunction” in Albany must fall on individual legislators breaking free of party.  Clearly, these men and women, nearly all of them, retain a passion for the common good despite partisan politics, and a willingness to act courageously if necessary, despite party loyalty.  It’s just that the gross warfare of politics has squelched these positive commitments.

Still, there are probably enough of them left in both parties, who, secure in their districts, committed to their constituents, or just plain fed up are willing to come forward to produce a budget.  Someone or some group needs to start the process, in essence creating a separate power structure, outside of party, to assert non partisan leadership on budgetary matters.  Who will that person or persons be?

The risks are substantial, but the rewards are great for those willing to step forward.  New Yorkers may lend their voices loudly to the national cries of anti-governmentalsim, but they, like their countrymen, are not without the basic values that continue to motivate the best voices among us:  those who find a way to value the truth above competing duties of political loyalty, or short term political advantage at the expense of the long term interests of our State.   

Any such political leader stepping forward is likely to find appreciation, not rebuke at the hands of his or her constituents, provided he or she acts truthfully in explaining his purpose.  That is the opportunity and responsibility awaiting individual legislators who claim any real commitment to reform.  It just takes a little imagination.

Stu Brody is former Chair of the New York State Democratic Rural Conference and teaches Business and Political Ethics at SUNY New Paltz.

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