In 2004, the Brennan Center for Justice and New York University’s School of Law released a report calling the New York State Legislature as “the most dysfunctional state in the nation.” It was an excellent critique and its findings well founded. Unfortunately, the report was viewed in Albany as nothing more than the machinations of liberal political opportunists, hardly worth considering. Times were good, budgets passed, interest rates were low, home values increased faster than taxes, debt concerns were muted; and, with the exception of Joseph Bruno, most powerbrokers continue to ply their trade.
One aspect of change never gained traction. It is the unbridled growth and spending of an estimated 480 public benefit corporations and agencies that currently serve as quasi-private organizations. Billions of dollars are involved, and in the words of Sen. Dean Skelos on June 4, 2009, the “process of government will keep getting worse unless we adopt the reforms we are pushing for today.” Score one for foresight.
On Dec. 9, 2009, Albany passed an updated version of the Public Authority Reform Act. It expanded the role of the Independent Authority Budget Office (IABO) with a mandate to collect and analyze information on the finances and operation of state and local authorities, conduct audits, define fiduciary responsibilities and specify plans for a reform agenda.
No one can deny that the mission statement established for the ABO should be very productive. But, a reality test, using information gathered from both the New York Times and an IABO report, issued July 1, 2010, suggests a difficult road ahead.
The reform act requires that employment data that will be entered into a central registry. The Times story, “Albany’s Two Payrolls: One Is Anybody’s Guess” highlight’s the absence of any semblance of centralized control of approximately 163,000 state employees, with some agencies saying they’re “unaccustomed to public inquiry.” In particular, the Thruway Authority refused to release its statistics without a Freedom of Information Law request and took a month before doing so. Independence trumps authority setting the table for arguments yet to come.
Another mandate calls for monitoring annual reports. Of the 53 Urban Renewal and Community Development agencies, only 18 complied. To complicate the issue even further, 21percent of the annual reports filed last year contained errors significant enough to warrant decertification..
I was pleased to learn that last June, Senate Republicans called for the enactment of real rules reform that would have truly ended the dysfunction that has caused the public to lose confidence in the Legislature. They called for increased governmental openness, accountability and fairness.
On a local level, the story “Skelos among signers to pledge to reform Albany” in the July 29-Aug. 4 Rockville Centre Herald, reported that he joined a non-partisan coalition established by former Mayor Ed Koch to reform ethics and the budget process.
Reforming state affairs will be easier said than done, requiring political support across party lines and leadership that has not been evident to date. Proper funding and staffing of the
ABO is also a key consideration. For the record, it is currently operating with a budget of less than $2 million dollars and a staff of seven.
State taxpayers can no longer afford to be passive observers of the inefficiencies evident today. I urge readers bring up the topic of reform with their local representatives to get an idea of what they hope to accomplish. If we don’t do this, New York State may very well slip into a new phase of economic instability beyond anyone’s imagination.