The illusion of reform: What happened to change we can believe in?

In Columns by Hal PetersonLeave a Comment

As I’ve mentioned in my four prior columns, our state authorities and agencies are not sufficiently accountable to the public. In the past decade alone there have been multiple reports by the State Comptroller’s office, governors’ commissions, and public sector watchdog groups about this. Efforts to legislate greater accountability by officials who have focused their attention on authorities have met with limited success.

I believe I have captured the essence of these concerns. The interest in this subject is beyond expectations, with some 3,400 views recorded on the LI Herald’s web site. Not many happy campers in this particular focus group. Reforming public authorities that have proven record of irresponsible behavior is no longer a debatable option. If we fail to, New York State is likely to slip into a new phase of economic instability beyond anyone’s imagination.

In 2006, with November elections in mind, Republican Gov. George Pataki signed into law the Public Authorities Accountability Act to “ensure our public authorities follow the highest standards of accountability, transparency and professionalism.” I love these quotable expressions of vigor and determination.  A major aspect of this legislation was the funding of a new Authority Budget Office (ABO) to conduct audits etc. Eliot Spitzer entered the scene shortly thereafter, shifting his concerns to Wall Street while preoccupied otherwise.

Moving forward, since ’06, the Authority Budget Office completed approximately 21 compliance reviews. The results, for the most part could have been anticipated and it was able to effect very little real change or improvement. No need to repeat the details -I find this disappointing. It appears we are confronted with two choices. One, remaining apathetic, we can accept inefficiencies as a cost of doing business. With the public sector on steroids, we can pay the taxes and hope the trains keep running.  The second option is to impose on our elected officials (individually and collectively) the burdens associated with responsibility and closely monitor their performance as agents of change.

In dealing with reform we are also confronted with a number of other conundrums. First and foremost, there are too many vested interest groups involved in managing literally hundreds of agencies serving our needs and contributing to 94 percent of the state’s current debt obligation. We are dealing with an operating situation that is clearly out of control when measured against any logical standard that applies in a dynamic free-market economy – hardily a likely environment for reform.

We are also witnessing serious weaknesses in the way our reform legislation is written. In retrospect, we now realize that the legislation approved with fan fare back in 2006, lacked civil and criminal enforcement mechanisms, making many current findings moot at best. I doubt if this was an oversight.  We also have been advised that new legislation is now required to repeal the statutory authorization of those authorities that have ceased to operate; or for all practical purposes are now defunct.  Whether this will happen is anyone’s guess. Real reform remains a gleam in someone’s eye. I’d like to know if you agree.

We currently have a new and improved Public Authority Reform Act that once again sets the standard for assessing performance with real change in mind. We would be naïve to think all of the issues identified in my column (thirteen in total) can be resolved through the audit process. Reform starts at the ballot box in November. I urge you to consider a candidate with a strong commitment to reform who is willing to accept those challenges and their political ramifications. Let’s not be caught up in the euphoria of reform. History suggests otherwise.

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