Opinion Editorial on Referendum
HOW TO CHANGE EVERYTHINGMichael R. Long
DEAR Gov. Spitzer:
New Yorkers around the state are eagerly looking forward to your keeping the promises you made to them when you ran for governor.
Your message was one of change - which you said would begin on Day One. We in the Conservative Party agree that change is necessary; here are some of our thoughts on where to start:
One of the first things to target is the common practice of doling out "member items." For far too long, New Yorkers have paid the price of this corrupted way of doing business.
As hardworking taxpayers, Conservatives have opposed member items since the practice began. The recent court decision requiring disclosure of how "member items" are allotted has reinforced our position.
Yes, many of the groups receiving the largess of elected officials are well-intentioned and are positive, community-minded organizations - but that doesn't entitle them to tax money. That the funds are allocated in secret, outside the public view, only makes it worse.
There is an innate corruption in a system that lets legislative leaders dole out taxpayer funds to their pet projects or to districts where an incumbent legislator is in danger of losing the next election. The use of member items feeds public cynicism not only about Albany, but about those getting the funds - any sense of the recipient's merits are lost in the muck of politics.
The Legislature will of course resist any effort to end its ability to bestow this largesse - so we urge you to lead by example. Under an agreement reached in recent years, the governor's office also doles out tens of millions of dollars in the same kind of spending. You've promised to end such undisclosed outlays; ending the governor's "member items" on Day One would be a solid start on wiping out all of them.
Saying "No!" to member items would so show that change is beginning on Day One, as you promised. The practice has been a leading cause of corruption and increased taxes on all New Yorkers to pay for legislative handouts.
Another, very different change would be to bring initiative, referendum and recall to this state. Many other states adopted these reforms early last century; it's time for New York to catch up.
As you know, initiative and referendum allow citizens to put propositions on the ballot to enact new laws - potentially end-running the special interests that control the Legislature. Recall lets citizens petition and (if they gather sufficient signatures) hold special elections to remove public officials, as Californians did not so long ago to remove Gov. Gray Davis. These reforms would oblige legislators to grow more attuned to the electorate's needs.
Our society believes that the people should have a strong say in what government does. But the system we have allowed to prevail in New York does not give ordinary people a say. Each house of the Legislature allows one man to control what bills come to the floor; our entire state government comes down to "three men in a room."
This is not what our Founding Fathers envisioned. And, while our everyday lives have changed dramatically since we became a nation and state, our ideals remain those that we were founded on.
We would be best served if we concentrated on the fact that our elected officials should be part time legislators. This system served New York best - because elected officials also had direct experience of the impact on the business world of the laws they wrote. But the Legislature has evolved into a full-time body, losing touch with those subject to the preponderance of do-good laws created by nanny-state mentalities.
A final major reform would be to enact term limits for all elected officials. If each politician knew, when elected, that he (or she) only had a certain amount of time to fulfill his campaign promises, he'd be far more focused on doing so. With an unlimited amount of years to deliver on promises, officials have no real incentive to do so.
Many will say, we already have term limits - the ability to vote out officials every two years or four years. But the power of the incumbency is extremely hard to overcome. Member items and the lack of initiative, referendum and recall certainly gives incumbents the advantage, along with constituent mailings, newsletters and public hearings.
Gov. Spitzer, we urge you to keep your campaign promises and to use your bully pulpit to enact these reforms as the beginning of change for all New Yorkers.
Real reform won't be easy, but its time has come - in fact, it's long overdue.
Michael R. Long is the chairman of the state Conservative Party.
Press Clip Relevance
The following is a 2007 guest editorial opinion offered in the New York Post from the the Honorable Mike Long, Chairman of the New York State Conservative Party, making a strong case as to how initiative and referendum, if enacted in New York, would empower citizens to make an end-run around powerful special interests that dominate the state legislature and have continually held-up real reform.