February 23, 2005

Why would anyone want to be involved in NYS government?

I attended Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton's Town Hall meeting last night, and I'll have more about what she had to say soon, but what struck me most last night and what's still echoing through my head is attendance. Not counting Lifton herself and an aide, there were nine people there. Last year's Town Hall had more like 25 or 30, though some of them were there specifically about George Junior Republic labor issues. Last night's weather wasn't great, but I'd thought there was a decent amount of advertising and announcing.

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton talks to a small audience
Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton talks to a small audience.

It often feels to me that the only politics people are interested in is national politics. We hear about national politics all the time at every level of media, people from anywhere in this country can share conversation (or argument) about the same issues, and it feels very very important. This is big stuff, and even the bigger stuff of how we deal with the rest of the world all tends to be seen through that national prism.

Unfortunately, apart from voting, giving money, and writing your Congressman (the latter of which I can't say I've found useful so far), we can all talk about national politics but it doesn't feel like there's a whole lot any single person can do to change it without devoting their life to it. We can make contributions to the conversations and the campaigns, we can share our opinions and hope that they're well-enough crafted to convince others, but a lot of the time national politics is like professional sports, and we're the audience.

Looking at the other end of the spectrum, local politics is an arena where individuals, even individuals without years of training or continuous participation, can make a dramatic difference. Meetings are small enough that ideas can circulate and grow. Bringing five people to a town board meeting makes a substantial difference in the audience, and if a hundred show up, that's astounding. On the other hand, there isn't much media coverage, people often don't think it's particularly important, and there are natural limitations in what local government (municipal or even county) can do.

The state level of government, at least in New York, seems to have the worst of both of these worlds. State government gets more media coverage than local government overall, but generally in terms that combine the sense of distance of national government with the mundane nature of local government stories. New Yorkers don't have much of a sense of commonality any more - Upstate vs. The City vs. The Suburbs make it hard for us to talk as a group about state politics. And perhaps worst of all, even voting doesn't have much of an impact in a system as thoroughly gerrymandered as the New York State Assembly and Senate. (Check out enrollment figures for Assembly and Senate districts if you need to verify that claim.) Districts are designed to minimize the impact of voters on their state government, and to ensure that existing majorities grow (in the Assembly) or survive (in the Senate).

What we hear about New York State politics tends to be "three men in a room" making decisions, perpetually late budgets, authorities borrowing money to support that system and avoid constitutional limitations on borrowing, problems in the ever-growing authorities themselves, and a lot of news that doesn't make it sound like there's much room for citizens to change a system that's evolved its defenses over the past several decades.

The state has problems that desperately need to be addressed, however. We seem to have become comfortable with borrowing at least since Nelson Rockefeller was governor and perhaps before. This is something difficult to think about, but $2450 per person may make it clearer:

When excluding these obligations, New York’s debt burden has increased from $1,438 per person in SFY 1993-94 to an estimated $2,127 per person in SFY 2003-04. This debt represents 5.6 percent of New York’s personal income. However, when the debt from the sale of the State's tobacco revenue, prior year claims and nearly $1.5 billion in other obligations are factored in, debt as a percentage of personal income increases to 6.7 and debt per capita increases to $2,450.

This is from the Comptroller's review of the enacted 2004-5 budget (402KB PDF), page 41.

As Assemblywoman Lifton pointed out last night, the states have been squeezed for decades by federal tax cuts and federal aid cuts, and New York is passing some of that burden to the counties, where they've had substantial impacts on property taxes. There's more than enough pain to go around, and New York's historic position as a net tax donor to the rest of the country doesn't help. Governor Pataki's search for windfall income and casino money hasn't done much to help in a period where state spending has increased from $77.8 billion in 1996-7 to $96 billion in 2003-4. Taxes are down, fees are up...

While it makes me happy to see that New York State is trending ever more Democratic, that political shift doesn't do much by itself to improve state government. While three Democrats in a room might produce results I like better than the current group, those three people are still going to have a lot to deal with. "Three men in a room" lacks legitimacy, and does little to involve the public in the debt mess we've created over the last few decades and to bring the public into the conversation about how we keep this state a place we want to live without heading into fiscal disaster.

I'd like to end this on an upbeat note, but I have to admit that it's hard to find one. We've seen a few small steps toward opening government, but I don't see much interest on either the public's part or on government's part in bringing people closer to their government. There's a lot of trust that needs to be built among people who don't naturally trust each other, if we're going to have a chance of making state government serve its residents over the long term.

I hope that showcasing state issues periodically here will make a few more people think about how state government affects Dryden, and who knows? Maybe some of them will make a difference.

Posted by simon at February 23, 2005 12:58 PM in , ,
Note on photos