Editorial: Another wasted year in Albany

Fallen expectations, broken promises
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks last week, urging the Legislature to renew mayoral control of the city's public schools.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks last week, urging the Legislature to renew mayoral control of the city's public schools.

You know that feeling you get every Jan. 1, after you realize you’ve once again let another year go by without fulfilling any of your New Year’s resolutions from the previous year?

You didn’t lose weight, didn’t get more exercise, didn’t get a new job, didn’t get out of a bad relationship, didn’t improve yourself in any way.

Well, the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have a message for you, New York: Happy New Year.

Our education system is floundering. Our roads and bridges are falling apart. Our business climate drives companies away. Residents are flocking to other states to get away from the high taxes. The degree of unethical conduct and corruption in state government has made us a national joke.

This time, though, they were going to do something about it. They were going to earn that pay raise that they were too embarrassed and afraid to give themselves.

This year would be different. 

We hereby resolve to pass ethics and campaign finance reform, reduce the opportunity for corruption in state contracts, cut wasteful spending, become more transparent, reduce taxes, eliminate unfunded mandates, improve educational systems, and generally make life better for struggling New Yorkers.

All those new year’s resolutions. All that hope. And what did we get?

Another year of fallen expectations and broken promises.

Let’s recap.

We’ll start with the achievements, which were few and far between.

If you believe taxpayers should be providing free tuition for upper middle class families to send their kids to SUNY schools while others face a $200 annual increase, put that in the win column. If you’re against 14-year-olds being allowed to marry, empowering sex traffickers and child abusers, that’s another victory. Still while raising the marriage age was important, it required no political courage. Who would be against it?

They did raise school aid to local districts, which will provide many with welcome relief. And they did raise the state’s age of criminal responsibility to help keep kids out of the adult criminal justice system, a major accomplishment, but one that 49 states already had done.

Just last week, lawmakers approved a new 5-year contract for 60,000 CSEA employees. But of course, they did it at the last minute, with little disclosure of the terms beforehand and without a full airing of the financial implications on state taxpayers.

Legislation that would have required political courage, by bucking the powerful Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts, was extending the age at which victims of child sex crimes could bring criminal and civil action against their assailants. But no, lawmakers in the Senate thought it was more important to protect sex offenders from potential prosecution than give their victims a better shot at justice. Nice job, fellas.

Lawmakers also squandered an opportunity to reduce corruption in the state bidding process that’s responsible for the legal black cloud hanging over the state’s Buffalo Billion project and other economic development initiatives. All supporters of reform legislation wanted to do was have the state comptroller independently review state contracts, hold companies accountable for the number of jobs they promised in exchange for economic development aid, require decision-makers to disclose potential conflicts of interest, and put all the particulars online so the public and the media could provide an extra check-and-balance. Could they do that for the people they were elected to serve? Nope. 

There was also no movement whatsoever on any other reforms that could have limited the ability of powerful state legislators to line their pockets in exchange for their votes. Apparently, seeing some of their leaders led off to prison had no effect on them. No campaign finance reform to close loopholes that allow businesses to skirt campaign finance limits. No voter reforms to make it easier for citizens to register and vote. No nothing to make government more accountable to the people they represent.

Another major piece of legislation they failed to pass was one that would have extended mayoral control over New York City’s schools. Here in upstate New York, we might not care about this issue. But we should. Prior to the mayor getting the authority in 2002, New York City schools were run by a single school board and about 600 individual mini-districts. That encouraged corruption and inefficiency and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in wasted education aid. Putting the schools under the mayor’s control helped rein in the problem by cutting excess staff and reducing inefficiencies. But after 15 successful years, state lawmakers — apparently demanding removal of a cap on charter schools in exchange for the extension — decided not to act. The control expires on June 30. This inaction could cost the city $1.6 billion — money the mayor says it may seek to recoup from state taxpayers through the courts. See now why we said you should care?

Lawmakers also failed to extend the sales tax for 53 of the 57 counties outside New York City. The extender, which the Legislature must renew every two years, lets counties hold the line on property taxes by allowing them to charge more than 3 percent in sales tax. The collective cost to counties that will likely have to be made up through higher property taxes is estimated at about $1.8 billion. This extender is particularly important to counties that rely on tourism, entertainment and shopping for revenue. The uncertainty over whether or not they’ll get the extension by the end of the year will also make it difficult for local governments to put together their annual budgets. There was no excuse for lawmakers not to pass this. It’s always been a rubber stamp. They didn’t anyway. They have until the end of the year to act — assuming they return to Albany to do it.

If you’re one of those workers who have no way to save for retirement through your jobs, state lawmakers could have helped you by supporting an AARP initiative that would have given employees who lack access to a workplace retirement savings plan the option to open a Roth IRA at work and contribute through payroll deduction. That’s just one way lawmakers could have helped older New Yorkers, but didn’t.

These are just some of the ways the state Legislature and the governor let us down this year.

But the difference between our own personal failings and the state government’s is that losing weight or getting a better job is a personal decision.

With state legislators and the governor, it’s their job. It’s what we the citizens of New York elected them to do, and what we pay them very well to do. Unlike our own personal goals, improving the state is not a choice for them. It’s an obligation.

And once again, they have let us down.

So Happy New Year, New York. Better luck next year.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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