The Albany Glacier

While Everything Else Changes, the State Legislature Remains Frozen in Time

So much has changed in New York politics.

Hillary Clinton's 12-point blowout ended the all-male tradition of statewide electoral winners, just as Comptroller Carl McCall's 1994 and 1998 triumphs ended the all-white one. In 1998, Chuck Schumer and Eliot Spitzer became the first Jewish Democrats to ever defeat Catholic Republican incumbents, overcoming a historic ethnic bar twice in a single year. State and city offices dominated by Republicans in the mid '90s are down to one: Governor George Pataki. Al D'Amato and Dennis Vacco are now mere lobbyists; Rudy Giuliani is a year away from a memoir. Term limits have already launched a revolution in the political life of the city, with almost every major office on the verge of changing hands.

Yet one significant lever of power has not moved a centimeter.

Only a single incumbent in the 211-member New York state legislature was defeated on November 7, though a second race, the fight for the East Side senate seat, remains undecided. Liz Krueger was 339 votes ahead of the 16-term state senator, Roy Goodman, when the Voice went to press, but the Board of Elections is still counting paper ballots.

The sole seat to change party hands was a Niagara County assembly win for the Democrats, who already had an extraordinary 98-to-51 edge over Republicans. It was also the only seat to switch parties in 1998, reducing democracy in a state of 11 million voters to a single assembly district near the Canadian border. If Goodman prevails, the dominant parties in both houses of the legislature will retain at least the same majorities as they've had for nearly half a decade.

No legislature in America is more prone to reelect its own ad nauseam.

Republicans did not even field an opponent to 40 assembly Democrats, and Democrats failed to challenge 17 of the 36 Republicans in the senate. A tally by the New York Public Research Interest Group and other good-government organizations revealed that only 25 legislative incumbents have lost in the last 20 years—over the course of 2110 general elections. No legislature in America is more prone to reelect its own ad nauseam.

The Republicans, who've controlled the senate since 1966, and the Democrats, who've run the assembly since 1974, are the definition of a joint-insider commercial party. Albany's lobbyists and special interests feed simultaneous millions to the campaign committees of both majority parties and starve their minority counterparts. It is so incestuous that the small consulting and lobbying firm of former Democratic speaker Mel Miller helped run the reelection campaigns this year of several senate Republicans. When reapportionment occurs every 10 years, the two majorities redesign districts to guarantee the continuation of their rule.

Worst of all, the dual majorities have in recent years created gargantuan slush funds, concealed in the nooks and crannies of the state budget, that allow them to raid the state treasury to protect their marginal members. Brooklyn assemblyman Jim Brennan released a detailed study of these discretionary operating and capital funds, contending that they totaled well over a billion dollars a year, an unprecedented feast for legislative leaders to dispense.

This largesse starts with $402 million in lump-sum appropriations to local groups—most of which are usually called "member items." Brennan contends that $168 million of these grants are "reserved for exclusive allocation" by the two legislative leaders, speaker Shelly Silver and senate majority leader Joe Bruno, in conjunction with the governor. The identities of the recipients of these grants are not disclosed, says Brennan, even to the full assembly. Incredibly, this secret grab bag grew by $103 million in the current, election-year budget.

While most of this special funding is controlled by either Bruno or Silver, they jointly determine how $32 million of it will be spent. An additional $63 million is so vaguely described in the budget that it was impossible for Brennan to determine which house initiated the expenditures. That's how collusive the bipartisan compact in Albany is. Brennan says that 15 to 25 members of the assembly are getting virtually all of its share of the secret funds, which he insists principally benefit Silver "loyalists" and Democrats whose seats were once seen as marginal.

In addition, Brennan focuses on $425 million in Community Facilities Enhancement Program expenditures (mostly stadiums), as well as the $225 million Strategic Investment Program (economic development and cultural projects), a $150 million Transportation Multi-modal Program and a $32 million off-budget health care construction fund. Many of the costly capital projects paid for under these new programs are picked by the three Albany leaders and disproportionately benefit the so-called marginal members of the two legislative branches, Brennan charges.

Brennan and 17 other assembly Democrats wrote Silver on June 7 asking that he disclose the full details of how these discretionary funds are being spent, but Silver has yet to respond to the letter. "The trend," says Brennan, "is toward reduced accountability and increased concentration of power," with "gross favoritism" being the only standard for assembly allocations. Brennan and many of his assembly allies adopted a statement of principles recommending many assembly reforms, including a revamp of the handling of all these funds.

Silver, who withstood a leadership challenge from frustrated members this spring, subsequently appointed his own Focus Group on Assembly Procedures, cochaired by Manhattan assemblyman Steve Sanders and including 24 members, all but three Silver loyalists. Even Sanders's committee urged Silver to give members a written report detailing the handling of these hidden expenditures, though it asked him to do it 30 days after the budget is adopted, rather than advocating any additional, prebudget disclosure.

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