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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Just Some Notes

1. Since 2007, New Yorkers have lost two statewide officers and a U.S. Senator. There is a lot of talk about changing the law to require special elections to fill vacancies in any statewide office. As well-meaning as this idea is, I think the only thing that might have made New York politics worse in 2009 would have been suddenly dropping a $40 million campaign to replace Senator Clinton on top of everything else.

2. A recent report by the state comptroller’s office warns that New York local governments may have to triple contributions to state pension funds in order to make up for stock market losses, in some cases paying just over one-third of their total payrolls. This is just one possible factor in a potential fiscal train wreck that some fear is coming. Our system of local finance is not sustainable, particularly the heavy reliance on a property tax that was never designed to support modern, sophisticated government services and schools. If we do not take action to control change, undesirable changes may be forced upon us. We are way beyond the point where we can merge a couple of sanitation districts and call it a day. We could be facing something very, very bad that almost no one wants to see happen. Maybe we will rethink our local governments and what we need them to do so that they provide better, more efficient, more relevant services. Maybe we will be California.

3. State Senate Democrats released details on the distribution of $85 million in “member item” money (grants to local organizations added to the budget by Senators). For 2009-2010, just under $77 million will go to Democrats and $8 million will go to Republicans. For 2010-2011, the big reform will be for two-thirds of the pot to go to Democrats and one-third to go to Republicans. Some Democrats argue that Republicans now know what it was like to be a Democrat in the Senate for the past several decades. However, there is a critical difference. State Senate Democrats may not have gotten much member item money, but state Assembly Democrats, in the majority since 1975, did. Communities that have a Republican senator and a Republican Member of Assembly are serious losers, including large swaths of Long Island and Upstate New York. From 1985 to 2007, every inch of Nassau and Suffolk counties had at least one state legislative representative in the political majority.

4. When I was an Assembly staffer, long before radio, the position of Assembly Democrats was that “member items” did not exist, sort of. In his haste to put together the best possible budget, the governor forgot to include some worthy projects and influential (Democratic) legislators merely corrected the oversight by putting them back in (we were instructed to use the phrase “legislative additions to the budget,” if forced to acknowledge the process at all). Today, that’s all changed. My state Senator sent out a mass e-mail reminding organizations to get those member item applications in, and even county legislators take big public bows over their own member items.

5. Between January 1 and July 15 of this year, candidates for Supervisor in Nassau County’s three towns had raised $283,000 and spent $294,000 on their campaigns (rounded to the nearest thousand). Every dime of that money was raised and spent by the three incumbent supervisors. Since Jan. 1, 2008, when their current terms began, the three supervisors have raised $812,000 and spent $636,000. Their campaign financial reports contain the names of scores of local not-for-profit organizations, to which they have issued checks for dinner tickets, journal ads and other miscellaneous and totally legal contributions. Fewer and fewer of our local elections are competitive, with both sides trying and able to win, but fundraising goes higher and higher. Investing in a politician’s campaign fund is an investment in a whole set of their values, ideals, allies and prospects. This is one reason real change isn’t coming fast. Knowingly or not, willingly or not, there are many, many people with a piece of this action and with something to lose, even if it’s for a good cause.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net