August 3, 2007

New York State power and authority

I know there's a New York Power Authority, but this isn't about electrical energy - it's about the concentrations of political power that New Yorkers take for granted.

New York's "Three Men in a Room" style of governance concentrates power in three people - the Governor, the State Senate Majority Leader, and the Assembly Speaker. Only one of those, the governor, is directly elected, while the other two come to their power from houses elected by gerrymandered districts, supported by rules that give them control over both the flow of legislation and the perks that other legislators receive.

It's been like that for a long time, though perhaps it got worse when the Senate and Assembly decided to let each house draw its own district lines without interference from the other. The Republican party controls the Senate, and the Democrats the Assembly, and the result has been paralysis for decades.

I was hoping that Eliot Spitzer might break that paralysis. His hard-charging style had worked as attorney general. Unfortunately, he too seems trapped - by Majority Leader Bruno and Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver, but also by his own approach to power. In two separate scandals, we have cases where an aide threatened a Public Service Commissioner's career to get what he wanted in energy policy, and Troopergate, where aides used the State Police to find out about Senator Bruno's trips to leak it and hopefully weaken him. (Unfortunately, in this context, it gets lost that Bruno perpetually used state aircraft for purposes that have very little to do with state government.)

It seems that Spitzer has fallen headfirst into the classic Albany story: get things done by applying the power of your office by whatever means necessary. There's not a lot of interest in democracy in Albany, at least not the kind that involves public involvement in decisions, but there is a lot of interest in making things happen.

Much as I hate to say it, I have similar fears for my own party, the Democrats, when we finally take over the New York State Senate. Unless the demographics change drastically, even Joe Bruno's willingness to bend the usual rules in his favor can't last forever. At some point there will be a Democratic majority in the Senate. Will they fall into the same power trap as the Assembly and (alas) the Governor? I wish I had more faith in the system, but watching minority Senate Democrats share a party with majority Assembly Democrats (with the opposite dynamic on the Republican side) doesn't give me a lot of hope.

I'm not quite ready to give up on New York State government, but I think it's time to start looking for options that break out of the usual "seize power and make a change" story in New York. I'm not yet sure what that would be, but I'm afraid it's probably going to mean electing people willing to sacrifice their own power in favor of changing the way New York State runs. There's aren't nearly enough of those people, they're rarely politicians, and voters often don't like that storyline - but I don't see other options that are likely to work.

Posted by simon at August 3, 2007 6:45 PM in
Note on photos