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Maybe This Year

As the New York State Legislature returns for another session, a number of citizens’ groups call for reform

‘Dysfunctional,” “unac count able” and “an en trenched power system” are a few of the many disparaging terms often used to describe New York state government, but a coalition of civic groups is hoping to add “reformed” to that list.

Common Cause/NY, the League of Women Voters and the New York Public Interest Research Group are urging legislators to support a number of legislative changes the groups have packaged as Reform New York—a series of proposals to boost public involvement and government accountability. While these groups and others have been calling for these and similar reforms for years, this is the first time they have packaged their concerns and distributed them to all 212 state legislators.

“What is most discouraging about government in New York is that it is supposed to be about the people,” said Rachel Leon, executive director of Common Cause/NY, “but it is in fact the opposite of that. The few control the masses and make all the decisions.”

One of Reform New York’s proposals calls for a fairer allocation of resources between minority and majority members. Currently, Leon explained, legislative leaders of both houses control the amount of money individual legislators receive for staffing, facilities and equipment. She said that system begs special favors and preferential treatment.

“It is a way [majority leaders] hold members of the Legislature hostage,” Leon said. “One of the reasons we have such a dysfunctional system is because if you speak up, then you lose member-item money or staff. It is one of the ways that the leaders keep this system the way it is.”

Leon would also like to see changes made to the state’s campaign finance laws, in particular the distribution of campaign funding by the Senate and Assembly leaders.

“One of the big things we see is that when you raise money in one specific campaign, it should stay in that campaign,” Leon said. “But what you see today is the leaders control the money and can shift it around to whatever elections they really care about. It is really unfair for challengers, because once again it is a couple of leaders deciding where the money is going.”

The groups said another key to reforming New York state government is to strive for greater openness and accountability. Reform New York calls for the creation of a state version of C-SPAN and for all bills brought to the legislative floor to be accompanied by an easily digestible public report. More important, said Blair Horner, legislative director for NYPIRG, improvements are needed for the state’s freedom-of- information and open-meetings laws, from which the Legislature made itself exempt in 1974.

“That is how they can have three men in a room,” he said, referring to the closed-door process in which the governor and two house leaders at times form legislation. “Under the rules of both houses, they agree to comply with the Freedom of Information act, but in many cases they don’t.”

New York state government has long been criticized for its leadership-driven, secretive governance and the annual legislative logjam caused by Albany’s partisan politics—Republican and Democrat majorities have long controlled the state Senate and Assembly, respectively, allowing each party to play politics at the expense of the voters.

Critics and legislators alike said fallout from the state’s partisanship is exemplified by the lack of communication between the two houses when both pass similar pieces of legislation. Currently, the two houses will meet to iron out their differences by holding a joint conference committee, but only if approved by the majority leaders. Critics say this can lead to stalled legislation with leaders from each house blaming the other for the holdup.

Assemblywoman Sandra Galef (D-Ossining) will reintroduce legislation this session that would require lawmakers from both houses to sit down and try to work out their differences when similar legislation is passed, not when leadership feels the timing is right.

“That happens in Washington,” Galef said. “Take the DWI, .08 percent law [that passed last year] as an example. That [bill] passed in both houses, but we just kind of sat on two different bills. If we had joint conference committees, that would have been debated years ago. That doesn’t mean it would pass, but at least you’ve tried.”

In his State of the State address last week, Gov. George E. Pataki made a few remarks calling for reform in New York state government, but Leon said the governor’s words will prove to be mere lip service unless he puts some political clout behind reform.

“The governor has put himself out there as a reformer for years, never backing it up with actual results,” said Leon. “He needs to be held accountable for that. It is time. We’ve seen things happening in other states and at the federal level and New York, at some point, has got to deal with these issues.”

Assemblyman John McEneny (D-Albany) pointed to a reform-oriented press conference held Jan. 14 by Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno (R-C-Troy) as evidence that the system won’t be changing any time soon.

“If that were a real move to reform, it would be [Assembly Speaker] Shelly [Silver, D-Manhattan] and Joe holding a joint press conference,” McEneny said. “So many of these reforms, when they come from legislators, are real good ideas, but unless they do it multilaterally, it is just to say, ‘I’m not the problem. I’m the reformer.’ When I see the two of them together, I know it is real.”

But Leon said she is optimistic that some of the reforms could be enacted this year if some legislators are willing to run against the grain in Albany.

“Everybody thinks it is an entrenched system and it is never going to be fixed,” said Leon, “but we’ve seen reform at the national level. Nobody thought that the soft-money ban would ever get passed, and we passed that last spring. We need more legislators to break out and speak against the system.”

—Travis Durfee

Let me show you my plan: Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings. Photo by Will Waldron

The Mayor’s New Math

Albany School District officials forge ahead with voter-approved facilities plan after Jennings suggests a different way to upgrade city schools

Citing a snag with a key component of the Albany schools facilities plan, Mayor Jerry Jennings announced it would be in the city’s best interest to scrap the voter-approved proposal to update the city school system and begin the process again.

During his State of the City address on Jan. 6, Jennings announced an alternative proposal for the future of the city’s schools. School district officials have expressed confusion at the mayor’s plan, which is diametrically opposed to the existing proposal that has been in preparation for the past five years and was approved by Albany voters nearly 2-to-1 in December 2001.

“The mayor supported a school system that is vital to the success of the city and the school district as a whole,” said school district spokeswoman Lisa Stratton. “He came with us a year and a half ago. We don’t know why he has suddenly changed his mind.”

Jennings’ proposal calls for a return to neighborhood schools, a consolidated middle school, an alternative, tech-based high school and a newly constructed high school. Aiming for smaller elementary and middle schools, the existing facilities plan called for the construction of a third middle school and a reconfiguration of the housing structure—elementary schools would now house grades k-5, with grades 6-8 in the middle schools. The existing facilities plan also called for improvements to the athletic fields at Albany High.

Difficulty with the most crucial and expensive piece of the existing facilities plan, finding a home for the third middle school, gave the mayor reason to launch his proposal. In order to satisfy all required environmental reviews, plans to construct the new school in Westland Hills Park have been all but abandoned. Currently the school district is trying to secure an 18-acre plot between Kelton and Rose courts off of Whitehall Road, a site the district initially targeted for the middle school but abandoned due to public criticism.

Jennings said the district’s trouble with finding a home for the new middle school has caused the facilities plan to fall behind schedule, jeopardizing the city’s responsibilities to its schoolchildren.

“The whole thing that is driving this is the middle school,” Jennings said. “We have to admit that there is a problem. I’m not down on the district, but there is a better way to do it. We should get in a room and talk about it.”

But school district officials don’t see a need to scrap the entire $175 million facilities plan when only one facet has hit a snag, adding that the mayor isn’t prepared to do so anyway. Further, district officials said the mayor has no legal power to change a voter-approved plan.

“We’re going forward with the plan that was voted and approved by the city,” said Stratton. “At this point, we don’t think the mayor’s proposal is a plan. There is no time schedule, no financial data. And we’ve been working five years working and developing all that.”

Where the existing school facilities proposal called for four elementary schools and renovation of seven more, Jennings’ plan calls for the construction of 11 new elementary schools. The mayor wants to build the schools in a cookie-cutter fashion to save the district time and money.

“When you go into these older buildings, renovation can get more expensive,” Jennings said. “We ought to look at a certain number of schools that are all the same and see what you get from the economy of scale.”

While district officials said they welcome input from Jennings, they are concerned with his plan to place the district’s 1,230 seventh- and eighth-graders onto one campus.

“The large middle-school plan was discussed,” said Stratton, “but the consensus has been small schools, particularly in an urban environment, are the way to go. It gives kids adults to connect with, they don’t get lost in the shuffle. You talk to anybody who works in those two middle schools and they’ll tell you they are too large.”

Jim Tierney, with People Advocating Small Schools, agreed.

“The idea of one massive middle school goes against all the current thinking of what a good middle school structure is and should be,” Tierney said. “The pure research shows that smaller is much better. They are safer and they improve student achievement, especially in urban areas.”

After a week where discussions about the future of the city’s schools were carried out in the media, both parties agreed to meet Jan. 22 to see if the two visions for the city’s schools can be combined.

On Jan. 9, Lonnie Palmer, superintendent of Albany City Schools, sent a letter to the mayor inviting a meeting of the minds and requesting a more informed proposal at next week’s meeting. The mayor said he would present his plan to the district at that time.

The school district will hold a public meeting today (Thursday) at 7 PM at the Albany School of Humanities to seek input from the community regarding the placement of a new school off of Kelton Court. The district is looking to decide whether to build a new middle school at the site or convert A.S.H. into the new middle school and build an elementary school at Kelton Court.


Joe Putrock.

Oh, What a State We’re In

Despite facing an estimated $10 billion budget gap, Gov. George E. Pataki painted a rosy picture for the coming 12 months in New York during his ninth State of the State address on Jan. 8. Though he called the state’s fiscal situation a “crisis” just a few weeks ago, Pataki promised not to raise taxes, cut public-safety spending or delay tax cuts previously promised to attract businesses. In fact, Pataki promised that New York would retain its status as the “tax-cutting capital of America.”

(clockwise from top left) Sen. Joseph L. Bruno (R-C-Troy), who was named Senate majority leader for the fifth time just prior to the governor’s address; New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, whom many speculate will seek the Democratic nod for governor in 2006; Pataki; New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who received praise from the governor for the mayor’s work in the Big Apple; Lt. Gov. Mary Donohue, who is expected to step into the role of governor should Pataki be tapped for a post in the Bush administration; Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), also reappointed to his post as Assembly speaker, who promised not to slash funding for education and health care programs in light on the state’s fiscal crisis.

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