A blog by Barry Edelson

Do You Still NY?

New York May Not Have the Worst State
Government, But We're Trying

As a nickname, "The Empire State" has always had a touch of pomposity about it. But even though today's politicians are under no obligation to fulfill the delusions of grandeur of their forebears, it would be nice if they could at least manage to display a degree of respectability. Lately, even that minimum standard of behavior is well beyond the capabilities of the people currently in charge of the state government.

For those who have the misfortune of living in some other state where politics may not be quite as dysfunctional or as entertaining, the state government is at this very moment in the midst of what could charitably called a leadership crisis. Last fall, Democrats wrested control of the State Senate from Republicans after decades in the minority. But their 32-30 seat majority was held together by a coalition of lightweights and halfwits who, to make matters worse, could hardly stand the sight of each other. Instead of basking in the glow of their victory, Democrats had to engage in weeks of seedy backroom bargaining just to keep the members of their caucus from bolting before the new session even got started last January. Apparently, the man in line to be the new majority leader, a senator who was previously not even a household name in his home district in New York City, was detested by a number of other downstate senators. What this senator ever did to his fellow legislators to make them dislike him so thoroughly has never been made clear. Perhaps, as it is often said of squabbles in academia, the infighting is so vicious because the stakes are so small.

A couple of weeks ago, after only a few months in control of the upper chamber, two of these disenchanted Democratic senators jumped ship and promptly voted with their brethren across the aisle to replace their unwanted majority leader with a Republican. Their stated reason for this astonishing betrayal of their caucus was the Democratic leadership's insufficient commitment to reform of the state legislature. That one of these two paragons of virtue is under indictment for slashing his girlfriend and the other is under investigation for major campaign fund violations is the sort of trivial detail that makes politicians beloved the world over. In any event, the ousted leadership claimed that the coup was illegal and refused to yield authority to the Republicans, which led to the enlightening spectacle of a bunch of middle-aged men in suits rummaging around the state capital building looking for the keys to the Senate chamber. (This is not a joke, at least not literally.) The courts have (rightly) refused to intervene, and the accidental governor is too politically enfeebled to bang heads together and broker a deal. The result: numerous important end-of-session bills languish in the hopper, while New York's already sterling reputation for bad government gets a lovely shine daily in the ever-willing press.

And how exactly did this come to pass? How did an already miserable example of representative government devolve so quickly into a calamity? I can explain it no better than Gail Collins in her March 28 column in The New York Times:

"New York has always been a place where legislative leaders held their power very close. Committees don’t really function, especially in the Senate. The rank-and-file are rather superfluous and the minority party has no reason for existence whatsoever. Truly, they could send up a bunch of ferrets wearing politician masks to sit in their seats and it would be absolutely the same.

Until 2008, Democrats were the perpetual minority party in the Senate. And what kind of people do you think run for a job that involves collecting a paycheck and staring at the ceiling? A handful of sterling characters bent on change and a large bunch of slugs who spend their entire legislative careers trying to raise enough money to build a new softball field or a Cucumber Museum back in the home district."

And so we are compelled to ask, what is state government good for anyway? True, it performs many important functions, but when the alleged adults who are elected to carry out those functions are as venal, inept and corrupt as most of those we are saddled with at the moment, these functions are only carried out in theory. It hardly needs to be said that when the will of the people is thwarted so outrageously and consistently, it undermines confidence in the very democracy upon which we depend to guide our public institutions.

Admittedly, New York's state misgovernment is hardly worse than that of many others. Remember the inexhaustible stream of colorful Louisiana governors who for a hundred years or more ran the state like their own personal plantation? Remember in the 1990s when the Democrats in the Texas state legislature ran away to Oklahoma to deny the Republicans a quorum on some vote they deemed critical to the survival of human civilization? Remember last fall when that crazy, unpronounceable governor from Illinois tried to sell a U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder? Remember earlier this year when the California legislature couldn't agree on a budget? Remember when Caligula appointed his horse to the Senate…

These examples, and countless others I am too depressed to research, are not exactly a ringing endorsement for New York. Being merely one of many truly awful state governments will be hard to reduce to a slogan. (Try writing a jingle to: "I Hate NY Less than Some of the Other States".)

So why are state governments so awful? Are there simply too many layers of government — counties, cities, towns and villages, not to mention countless school, library, water, fire, parking, lighting and sanitation districts — for an increasingly preoccupied populace to care about them all? Voter turnouts are abysmally low even in "important" elections, let alone in votes for the boards of these little bodies. There has been a movement afoot in New York State lately to consolidate some of these thousands of little fiefdoms in order to (supposedly) save the taxpayers money by creating efficiencies of scale and reducing an overlap of services. But considering the imbecility and incompetence already on display on the boards of so many of these potentially useful entities, it is hard to see how consolidating them would accomplish anything but creating somewhat larger fiefdoms at the expense of already diminishing levels of service. On the other hand, there's something to be said for reducing the overall number of officeholders in the hope that the bottoms of fewer barrels would have to be scraped in order to find enough political talent to fill them all.

It's a slim hope, though. Some cynics would no doubt make the case that bad government is merely the result of a bad populace: that the ignorance and conflicting desires of the people are merely reflected in the mediocre, waffling politicians they elect. However many government bodies we have or how few, an uninformed and indifferent electorate will only make uninformed and indifferent choices among the handful of candidates on offer. For good or ill, we get the government we deserve. What that says about the beleaguered voters of New York is not exactly flattering.

June 20, 2009

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