the New York State Legislature returns for another session,
a number of citizens’ groups call for reform
“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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
me show you my plan: Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings.
Photo by Will Waldron
Mayor’s New Math
School District officials forge ahead with voter-approved
facilities plan after Jennings suggests a different way to
upgrade city schools
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
What a State We’re In
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.