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From the new governor: fighting words 


Details, details, details.

All campaign long, reporters badgered Eliot Spitzer to be more specific about his policy agenda, especially about government reform.

Last week, in Spitzer's first State of the State address, they finally got those details --- or at least more than he had offered previously. And while his speech was as platitude-riddled as any politician's, the details he revealed were largely welcome ones, at least when it came to reform.

If there was a single moment in the speech that captured the promise of a Spitzer administration, it was his call for an independent commission for redistricting. After every Census, the state has to redraw the boundaries of every legislative district. Legislators themselves draw the lines, insuring that incumbents are protected. Critics of New YorkState government have repeatedly identified this as an essential change, needed to ensure competitive elections and thereby a more responsive government.

What makes Spitzer's demand for an independent commission noteworthy is what he said next: "Until this happens, I will veto any proposal that reflects partisan gerrymandering."

This marks a major promise on Spitzer's part, one for which he can be held accountable. It's not the most airtight statement ever; what is partisan gerrymandering to one person could be simply an accurate reflection of demographic trends to another.

But Spitzer's promise marks a move from vague campaign rhetoric to a defined stance. His supporters always said that this version of Eliot Spitzer would be forthcoming. It's reassuring to know that they've already been proved at least partially correct.

It's also oddly reassuring --- and troubling at the same time --- that not all of Spitzer's reform agenda received a warm reception from legislators gathered in the Assembly chambers.

Spitzer announced a Commission on Local Government Efficiency to explore consolidating municipalities. "We must summon the political will to face the reality that 4,200 taxing jurisdictions are simply too many, too expensive, and too burdensome."

Those are strong words for a state as staunchly home-rule as New York, and the applause that followed was muted compared to other parts of the speech. (No doubt many of the legislators were busy pondering the fallout at home if a commission recommends substantial government mergers.)

And if response to that proposal was tepid, that was nothing compared to another reform initiative that Spitzer floated in his speech. He said he'll insist that member items --- expenses that legislators add to the budget to benefit people or organizations in their district --- be itemized. And he said he'll require legislators to outline the financial impact of changes they make to his budget.

Silence followed.

"C'mon," he appealed, which bought him only grudging applause. "You applaud for eliminating gerrymandering but not that?"

The line brought laughter, but the exchange reflects pretty accurately what Spitzer's up against. Democrat or not, many of Albany's legislators aren't likely to go along quietly with changes that hurt them or diminish their power.

Spitzer may be in a honeymoon period right now. And he may even have political capital to burn as he launches his reform agenda. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is swearing up and down that Spitzer's remarks about the status quo are aimed at former governor Pataki, not at Silver. But sooner or later, Silver and Bruno will dig in their heels, and the battle over reform will become a battle over the balance of power in state government.

There were other elements of Spitzer's speech, of course: new details about his policy agenda in all kinds of areas. He wants more funding for schools, especially urban schools. He wants that increase statewide, not just in New York City. He'll address a perennial complaint of Upstate businesses and contractors, the Wicks Law. (The law requires four separate contractors on public-works projects over $50,000, and critics say that needlessly drives up construction and renovation costs.)

There were a few surprises. Spitzer said he'll take up Pataki's push for civil confinement legislation for sex offenders. And his call for more charter schools earned boos from some legislators,

The big news from this speech, though, was Spitzer's commitment to reform. Details about other policy areas will come later this month in the form of his budget proposal.

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