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
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
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'
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
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.