April 21, 2008

Garbage truck trainwreck continues

"Clearly, people don't understand how state law is made."

Hmmm.... Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton seems to have put herself in a tight spot after last week's meeting on garbage truck traffic on two-lane highways. Maybe headlines as far away as Syracuse titled "Assemblywoman Lifton irritates garbage truck task force, others" were a bad sign (though the print edition had the milder "Task Force Hits Detour".

Today's article presents Lifton asking for clarification of the Department of Transportation's position, as "there may have been a lapse in communication as personnel changed in state offices." These two paragraphs seem to cut to heart of the matter for Lifton:

Lifton's letter to Commissioner Astrid Glynn said that over the past year and a half, DOT counsel told both the Assembly central staff and Lifton's staff that DOT has "many concerns" with the Senate bill sponsored by Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-50th. Lifton also said in her letter that, "Some must think I'm not telling the truth," based on the fact that it appears as if she is not saying the same thing DOT is saying....

"I hardly know how to respond," Lifton said of the comments made against her. "I'm actually trying to work on a bill that the DOT would approve and the governor would sign into law to help mitigate this problem. I find it an incredible misunderstanding on where we are. Clearly, people don't understand how state law is made."

This Journal article presents the conflict as one between Democratic and Republican bills, which is unfortunate, as the original article included a representative from Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, whose office found the Republican proposal constitutional.

There are some pieces in the two articles and in the background story that I think might explain what's happening, though doubtless someone will show up to tell me that "Clearly, [I] don't understand how state law is made." Still, if you connect the pieces, there appears to be a pattern. First, the background:

  • Senator Schumer's office has been active on this issue for a long time. In fact, I'm pretty sure I first heard of it because of his office. I'm not a huge fan of Senator Schumer, but he recognizes that the entire state elects him, and does push hard on Upstate issues.

  • This is an issue that Upstate Republicans have united on. They're not huge fans of regulation generally. However, their constituents are definitely annoyed by the truck traffic, this affects people in a number of different Assembly and Senate districts, and a lot of the traffic comes from New York City, making it even easier for constituent temperatures to rise.

  • Democratic legislators are much less happy about this issue generally. Many of them represent districts where the garbage originates, and their constituents would have to bear the burden of the extra costs.

Today's article adds two things:

  • The article notes that Lifton is not even optimistic about the possible fate of her proposed "blue-ribbon commission" bill, never mind the more concrete Republican-sponsored bill - "She said at the meeting that she does not think her bill could get through the Assembly by the end of the year."

  • The role of the DOT leadership in this remains murky. What's the story on the earlier statements? Were they telling Democratic legislators what they wanted to hear, for better or worse? Lifton's letter to the DOT (missing a page) notes that "Tomika Bennett, an attorney on your staff, was slated to come to Ithaca to explain why the DOT is opposed to that specific bill, but cancelled shortly before the meeting due to illness."

To me, the telling part is Chuck Schumer's aide coming to the meeting and saying bluntly:

"We've done a lot of vetting and truck agencies absolutely can be created. There are states where they exist. The key element is that reasonable access is afforded because that is where we get into some of those interferences with clauses. As long as that's done we have every assurance that there is precedent constitutionally to do so."

With that comment, she blew the story wide open. It's hard to oppose this on grounds of constitutionality when a Senator from your own party not only disagrees, but points to its use in other states. Schumer, of course, isn't very worried about what the Democratic conference wants - he needs to make sure that Upstate knows he's working hard for us.

So overall, I think:

  • Lifton is trapped between her constituents who hate these trucks and an Assembly that won't likely pass any bill on the subject;

  • Lifton is unwilling even to push for a bill with stronger language because that would be bucking the Democratic conference in the Assembly;

  • Lifton is unwilling to come out and say something like "the Democratic leadership just handed us $2 million for dredging Cayuga Inlet - why would I challenge them this week?" That would force her to acknowledge some ugly things:

    • that one constituency might be more important than another;

    • that money gifted by the leadership is more important than passing legislation;

    • that money from the leadership has something to do with one's loyalty to the conference's wishes rather than to one's loyalty to the district.

I'm pretty confident in that analysis. Of course, though, "Clearly, people don't understand how state law is made." And no, I haven't asked her office - I doubt I'd get any different answer on the record than she's given the Journal or made at the meeting.

Update: I just noticed this on the WHCU news page, which felt like a stronger statement from Lifton than I see in the Journal:

Lifton Asked For A Clarification And Said If It Turns Out The DOT Has No Objections She Will Introduce The Bill In The Assembly.

That led me back to look more closely at Lifton's letter, where she writes that:

If you are indeed supportive of S6461, please let me know immediately, and I will introduce that bill in the Assembly and push for its immediate passage. If you are not supportive and you would urge the Governor to veto such a bill, perhaps you would explain your opposition to the public and offer another remedy to [cut off]

This sounds like Lifton is leaving her position up to the DOT, which is itself a very strange position for a legislator to take. She's supposed to represent her constituents to the DOT, not the other way around. Beyond that, I suspect there's a large gap between "supportive" and "would urge the Governor to veto such a bill." And why would she have to introduce the bill herself, when Barclay's already introduced it?

(I really don't like Barclay after the State Senate race in the 48th, but side-stepping a bill that's already introduced is just more Assembly shoving around, I think.)

I think this part was meant to sound strong, but sadly, it just comes across as more weakness.

If I had known that meeting was going to be that interesting I'd have gone. I guess the best ones get away, sometimes.

The Journal's editorial calls for more attention to keeping volunteer fire departments healthy, and also calls for people to come out to run for school board. (Petitions are due today - maybe they should have run that earlier?)

I'm a little disappointed in the list of qualifications they provide for school board members - after the recent run of disasters in the Ithaca schools in particular, I'd have thought there might be more openness to board members who question how things are run rather than striving to always be a team player.

Posted by simon at April 21, 2008 7:13 AM in ,
Note on photos