January 18, 2006 News & Opinion » Featured story

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New York sucks 

And it's all your fault

Albany's a wreck.

But you knew that already. You've read countless articles and editorials about late state budgets, high tax rates, and other problems.

What you may not have read, though, is a comprehensive description of all those problems --- and why you should care about them --- all in one place.

That's where a recently released book comes in. "The Politics of Decline," written by the Gannett News Service's Albany bureau chief, Jay Gallagher, fills that big-picture vacuum.

There are probably few journalists as qualified to write such a book as Gallagher, who's been covering statehouse news and politics for more than two decades.

"There's no question that he's one of the elder statesmen of the capitol press corps," says Michael Cooper, Albany bureau chief for the New York Times. At press conferences, Gallagher's often first out of the box with tough questions, says Cooper, and among reporters he's known equally for his wisdom and common sense. (He's also known among capitol reporters for doing a mean Eliot Spitzer impression at correspondents' banquets.)

The book had its genesis when Gallagher noticed two simultaneous trends: the dysfunction in government --- which he'd witnessed ever since arriving in Albany --- was steadily growing worse, even as the state's economy did the same.

"It occurred to me to look," he says. "Is there a connection between those two things?" There was, he found. Armed with that insight, Gallagher convinced Henry Freeman, editor of Gannett's Journal-News in Westchester (and head of the oversight committee for the chain's Albany bureau) to let him spend a year writing the book. (Portions of the book took the form of several series in New York's Gannett papers during the past two years.)

"I thought if you kind of put it all together and let people sit down and read one cohesive story about the way the whole thing works, it might have some impact and maybe change things in the way that a newspaper story or a series of newspaper stories really can't," says Gallagher.

The book explores the depressing facts about the EmpireState's slow fall from glory and what that fall means to the average New Yorker. Of course, the situation's not all bad. There are signs of improvement, and there are good things about the state that haven't changed.

"It's much cheaper to live, if you discount taxes," says Gallagher, "and it's just a more relaxed way to live, and real estate's cheap." Those cheap real-estate costs plus the low cost of labor help attract businesses, like Rochester's PaeTec. "So we still have a lot of advantages," says Gallagher.

If there's one theme that recurs in Gallagher's assessment of the state's problems, it's the power of ordinary people to correct them. Over and over during a recent conversation with City Newspaper, he fingered citizen apathy as one of the major barriers to substantive change. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.

In the book's introduction, you pose the question: "What difference does this make to the average New Yorker?' The whole book is the answer to that question, but can you give a quick synopsis? Why should New Yorkers care?

Because if you don't have a job, it's harder to get one than it should be. If you do have a job, it's harder to advance. If you're established in the community, you're paying higher taxes than you should. If you're young and looking to get going, it's really hard to do it here. So it hits at the core of our economy.

And of course jobs mean money, and whether you can stay close to your family or do you have to move. It's what generates wealth in the state. And to the extent we make it harder to generate wealth, it affects all of our standards of living and makes it harder for people to stay here. If you own a house, it means the value is not appreciating as fast as it is in other places, so you have less wealth. You're just not living as well as you would if you were in a better-run state.

Early on in the book, you sketch a quick history of New York. For most of that history, we've been the dominant state. That's changed. Why did it take us so long to see the handwriting on the wall? You've mentioned that other so-called rust-belt states were able to shift gears much more quickly and come out a lot quicker.

Well, I don't think we've seen the handwriting on the wall yet. We haven't come to grips with it. The reason is that we pay less attention to what our state government does in New York, I think, than most other states. I point out that media coverage of the capital in New York is far less than it is. There seems to be less appetite for it. We're a big state, so on the one hand, you have people in Rochester and Buffalo who really are in more of a Midwest mindset than a New York mindset, and Albany seems like a very distant place.

More importantly, you have people downstate who think that the world revolves around Manhattan and if it doesn't happen in the five boroughs or someplace close by, it doesn't really make any difference. So I think there's more provincialism than in most places, and therefore we put our state government under less scrutiny. So they get away with more.

That means that people with narrow interests --- people like trial lawyers, pharmaceutical companies, and some labor unions --- their narrow interests prevail more often than they should over what's good for the state as a whole. That happens over and over and over again.

What's wrong with New York?

You say that other state legislatures have long since changed the rules system which gave the leaders so much power, and divested that among committee chairs and other rank-and-file members. Why, if everyone else has changed, are we still saddled with this three-men-in-a-room kind of system, with Bruno and Silver running the legislature?

The same reason the whole system doesn't work well: because we haven't --- the public hasn't --- demanded it. The important thing to remember is that the system works for those on the inside. It works for those people currently holding office, if you measure it by: Do they hang onto their jobs? And of course we have, I think, one of the highest reelection rates of any legislature in the country.

So we have a system that works, from their perspective. There has to be some reason to change it. And typically the reason to change it is public pressure that demands that power be more diffuse. That movement hasn't happened here yet, I guess because we haven't been paying enough attention.

In the section about the governor, you wrote: "Pataki at almost every turn has limited the amount of information flowing to the public about its government." Post-9/11, polls have shown that people seem more willing to accept government secrecy, and it's even trickled down to local levels. Can you explain the connection between open government and good government?

Sure. In the Pataki chapter, I talk about some specific examples. For instance, when we went to Hungary with Pataki, we were wondering, who's paying for this? And they told us, it's the Hungarian-American Chamber of Commerce, hiding the fact that it was really Philip Morris who was footing the bill. So here you have an example of a tobacco company trying to block legislation to restrict smoking and that information not being readily available.

Or when the governor and his wife took a trip to the Bahamas, and he wouldn't tell us, or he wouldn't provide documentation that he actually paid for that trip. Accepting a gift of over 75 bucks is a crime. And the guy who's giving him this trip, it turns out he's trying to get some money for state support for his project in the Meadowlands from the Port Authority, which is half controlled by the governor.

So you have all these instances of people currying favor. It's hard to separate out what the government should be doing and what it is doing if we don't have adequate information about what it's really up to. Giving up development rights along the canal to an insider for $30,000: there's an example. When it finally did come out, it was blocked. But imagine giving away a precious resource of the public like that for peanuts, because it was done in secret.

One general criticism I make of Pataki is --- I didn't mean to make that chapter the final word on whether he's been a good governor or not, because that's beyond the scope of the book --- but he hasn't been much of a leader certainly on changing the system. It's hard to be an effective leader when you're so worried, when you don't want to disclose very much.

It's almost a separate issue, except that what ties it together is they hesitate to say anything, certainly anything controversial or anything even provocative. And I think that's a real flaw in his leadership style.

You devoted chapters to Medicaid, education, pensions, and laws the unique to New York. If you had unlimited space, are there other large problems or challenges that you would have written about?

Certainly workers comp is another great issue right now. We have this incredibly dysfunctional system that provides among the lowest benefits of any state in the country, but it's also among the most expensive. And we seem to be in a position where almost everybody who looks at it agrees that this should be changed, and yet there's a political paralysis here that it just doesn't happen.

Another is: we're not able to build power plants in New York right now because a law that streamlined the regulatory process expired a couple of years ago. And the legislature is totally unable to come up with a compromise to extend it. So even though we are facing an energy shortage here probably in two or three years, and the lag time between approving a plan and having it come online is several years, we're just doing nothing about it. It's this idea that we don't have to deal with a problem until it's an emergency. Yet in the case of these power plants, it's too late now. You can't decide: okay, we'll just flip the switch and build some plants. It takes time.

Of course another example of this kind of thinking is our debt: $48 billion dollars. It was the highest of any state before Arnold Schwarzenegger had to borrow $9 billion to bail out California, but it's way out of line with the rest of the country. And every year it takes several billion dollars of taxpayer money just to pay the interest on the debt. So it's a huge overhang over the state's finances, and it gets more serious every year. But because it's not an emergency, because we're not paying attention to it, because there's not uproar about it, not much happens. It just continues to build every year.

The fix

About a year and a half ago, New York University's Brennan Center released its report calling the legislature the "most dysfunctional" in America. Yet some of the good-government groups have been saying similar things for years. Why did this one report seem to stick and get some media coverage and generate a little outrage?

That's something I didn't really expect. I thought when it came out, it would just sink like most similar reports have. First of all, calling New York the "most dysfunctional" was a real easy handle, real easy for people to understand and to catch onto. Secondly, it was done by a place in the city, NYU, and therefore it got more coverage than it would have if it was done by a think tank in Albany or Rochester or Buffalo or anywhere else. And thirdly, I think it was some part of a series of things that happened; the late budget 20 years in a row, taxes being increased in '03, and continuing economic problems. It came at a time when people were prepared to believe that about the state. So it was well-timed, as it turned out.

You note that League of Women Voters leader Barbara Bartoletti says campaign finance laws and reapportionment are "the keys to maintaining the status quo." Is that an assessment you would agree with?

Yes. Those are the two big things that need to happen, because the key is to have competitive elections. When you have competitive races, the officeholders have to be very concerned that they'll lose their jobs. Therefore they ignore what's best for the public at their peril. They can't be as cavalier about their decisions as they have been, typically. And the key to competitive elections are those two things: to have legitimate, fair districts and to have some kind of level playing field in terms of resources that candidates spend. Those are the two most important ways that incumbents maintain their power: by having gerrymandered districts and by having way more resources than any challenger does.

What will change those two things, if anything?

The same thing that led to some changes last year. If the public demands it and screams loud enough, there will be a change. Especially if in the next round of elections, a few incumbents lose to candidates who say, "This is what we have to do: we have to make it fair; we have to have fairer elections; we have to have a level playing field."

If that's the key issue in a couple of close elections, that starts to get some juice.

We're still a functioning democracy, so the public can still influence these things. They haven't had so much interest in the past, but that's how it has to happen.

It would have been good if the governor had mentioned something about either of those things in his State of the State address. And he didn't. He didn't say boo about reform. That's a real bad sign in terms of any reforms happening this year.

Crash and burn?

Near the end of the book, you quote someone from the Citizens Budget Commission in New York City saying the city's legislative and government reforms came about because of their fiscal crisis a few decades back. Is that what it will take for the state, where we crash and burn before we put the pieces back together?

It could very well. In fact, that's kind of what I'm worried about. That seems to be the way a lot of governments operate: until there's a crisis nothing happens. But it just seems so dumb, when we know what's wrong now and we can reverse course almost immediately and not have to crash first. But right now, there's no indication that we're going to reverse course.

Of course, we don't know what's going to happen. Obviously, we're going to have a new governor in less than a year, and we'll see if that makes any difference. But there will still be the tough political choices. A lot of people give Pataki credit in his first couple of years of making the tough choices of cutting spending in Medicaid and welfare and cutting the state workforce but in the process getting the state's budget sort of under control.

And yet at the end of his first two years, his poll numbers were abysmal. People were talking about impeaching him. He was not a beloved figure by that time. So he did what was sort of politically smart. He reversed course.

As someone said to me this weekend, he sort of went native. He became a more typical Albany politician. And it made everything worse, but in the process he became far more popular, and he was overwhelmingly reelected in 1998. So we'll have to see if this next governor has a similar learning curve or whether he can do something different.

What would you tell average citizens who want to know what they can do to make a difference?

In most communities, there are some groups who are agitating --- more importantly, just by raising your voice. I'm always surprised when I hear legislators say they get 15 or 20 calls on an issue and that's a lot. It doesn't take that many citizens who are outspoken and in contact with their legislators to make a difference. I'd say: pay attention; be informed about what's going on. And if you don't like it, then give your elected representatives an earful. That's what they're there for.

And the more they know you care about this stuff, the more likely they are to do the right thing. I mean, I think that's a basic part of our problem: we haven't done enough of that. And therefore, people have taken advantage of that.

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