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Opinion

Reforming Albany takes more than talk

When Charles Foster Kane bought The New York Inquirer in

the great film "Citizen Kane," he immediately published a ringing Declaration

of Principles promising his readers "a fighting and tireless champion of their

rights as citizens and human beings."

In his first State of the State address, Gov. Eliot Spitzer reached the

same operatic heights, declaring, "You can't change the world by whispering"

and "Our first objective is to reform our government... "

Spitzer is making an effort. His first five executive orders imposed

ethics, campaign-finance and lobbying reforms on his own administration, then

he vowed to extend these same reforms to the State Legislature. The new

governor's heart is in the right place. But what about the details?

In 2004 the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University branded the

State Legislature as the worst in the nation. It cited 20 years of late

budgets, legislative gridlock and a "three-men-in-a-room" government (governor,

Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader) that rivaled the Soviet

politburo. A 2006 follow-up report found this culture unchanged - entrenched,

hidden and well fed.

The culture is entrenched through the favor bank - a network of reciprocal

favors built on member items, state contracts, the state payroll, the

disposition of state lands and patronage spending by state public authorities.

The culture is hidden through secret party conferences, unreadable budgets,

proxy committee voting, fast roll calls, fraudulent travel vouchers and "007

Accounts" that annually funnel $200 million to family and friends of key

legislators - and, in some cases, the legislators' wallets.

The culture is fed by lobbyists. As reported by the State Board of

Elections, interest groups spent $5.7 million in 1978 to influence state

legislation. This swelled to $38.5 million in 1993 and $144 million in 2004.

The central metaphor for this culture, and its nadir, is the governor's

"message of necessity." Although New York legislators are entitled to a

three-day review period before voting on any proposed legislation, the state

Constitution allows the governor to attach a "message of necessity" to any law

he proposes. This requires legislators to vote immediately on a bill they have

never seen. Lobbyists use it to ram bills through the legislature. They simply

approach the governor, pay a toll, so to speak, and enter the freeway of

fast-track legislation.

All of this has to stop, and Spitzer can do it. Here's how:

Abolish all messages of necessity by executive order and end the practice

immediately.

Reform Medicaid and the public authorities. Both are billion-dollar

piggybanks for lobbyists and special interests. Appoint an inspector general in

each area with full subpoena powers.

Dismantle the Albany politburo. The Assembly speaker and Senate majority

leader have too much power and too little accountability.

Impose term limits. The re-election rate of New York legislators is 98

percent. Only death or criminal indictment seems to remove them.

Move the legislature to New York City. This may seem drastic, but it would

enhance efficiency, access and public accountability. For one thing, you'd have

key city, state and federal agencies in the same town, which happens to be the

media capital of the country.

Invoke the Moreland Act of 1907, which authorizes the governor to "examine

and investigate the management and affairs of any department, board, bureau or

commission," invest it with full subpoena powers and examine the legislators'

member items.

Convene a state Constitutional Convention. New York voters may call a

convention every 20 years. Since the last convention was in 1967, we can insist

on having one immediately. Every reform on this list, and in the Brennan

report, could be codified.

Spitzer's approach to reform so far is to use laws in a lawless town,

filled with bundlers and intermediaries who eat "reforms" for breakfast - nine

state lawmakers accused of serious crimes since 2003 and a Senate majority

leader currently under FBI investigation. Lobbyists, lawyers and soft-money

specialists will run circles around any ethics laws as fast as Spitzer can sign

them.

Albany does not need Spitzer's Ten Commandments. It needs the fear of God.

A Moreland Commission, a Medicaid inspector general and a public

authorities inspector general will instill this fear. They will provide Spitzer

the same investigative muscle he once wielded while he was attorney general.

If he fails to use that muscle, he will resemble Citizen Kane - the man of

great destiny whom history passed by.

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