Today’s Top Columns & Editorials

Two themes emerge out of this week’s news coverage and opinion pieces — ethics reform and government consolidation.

Ethics Reform

The Times Union continues to provide the most nuanced reporting on the topic of ethics reform. In today’s lead editorial they applaud the direction of Gov. Paterson’s latest proposal, but criticize some of the particulars.

Divorcing the ethics commission from political influences seems like an obvious requirement for any reform to have a chance of being successful. How to do it, however, is very tricky. The TU chides the governor for trying to maintain the upper hand in the selection of his proposed commission. The TU also identifies additional necessary and desirable measures currently before the legislature but without offering hope that they will become law in 2009.

The Times Union offers another viewpoint on the issue in its opinion section by publishing a piece by Karl Sleight, former executive director of the Ethics Commission. Sleight suggests that a half a century’s efforts to insert ethics into politics and government has floundered in part due to unrealistic expectations. “[T]he goal is illusory,” Sleight writes. “Ethics laws do not make people more ethical.” His caveats concerning due process and the need to focus on activities that promote transparency should be kept in mind as today’s leaders consider the governor’s proposal.

Consolidation: Gathering Momentum Despites Its Critics

The introduction of new legislation by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo that would make it easier for the public to push through local government consolidation has drawn a good deal of attention in New York’s press.

The New York Times puts the issue in a regional context. The consolidation movement in New Jersey is at least a year ahead of New York’s, but New Jersey which has more muncipalities per capita than any state in the union, started further back. In Connecticut consolidation efforts are focusing on the courts — which is also an issue for NYS. (See The Empire Page Interview on New York Courts).

The Times focuses on the problem in NYS of special taxing districts, where “some of those districts have more cars and supervisors than workers.” A quick solution to that problem proposed previously by this writer is to require that ALL special taxing districts sunset unless reinstated every five years.

The Journal News did a better job than the Times did of finding opponents to consolidation. In addition to State Senators Oppenheimer and Morahan, who are not convinced the promised savings would result, the Journal News talked to Liz Feld, mayor of Larchmont (who was interviewed by The Empire Page recently on tax and budget issues). Feld told the Journal News that “pension contributions, unfunded mandates and health care for state employees” not local government inefficiency is what’s driving up costs.

The Journal News also identified one special interest group – Volunteer Firefighters — who have a strong argument from being removed from the consolidation legislation. While the Firefighters have a case, there’s no evidence as Newsday’s editorial board pointed out yesterday that Cuomo’s bill was aimed at volunteer departments on Long Island or elsewhere.

Neither is it the case that Cuomo’s proposal was put forth as an alternative to addressing immediate tax issues as Feld implies. While Albany may prefer to deal with consolidation because it has little immediate effect on them, as the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle argues today, action should be taken before the end of this year’s session to address four major problems facing New York: (1) property taxes, (2) state spending, (3) costs being pushed to local government and (4) easing the path to consolidation.

Further it is clear that addressing those four should be a higher priority than ethics reform which was botched in 2007 when Gov. Spitzer didn’t take enough time to sort through the thorns to come up with a viable solution. If Gov. Paterson wants to revive his popularity with the public, he needs to focus on the getting those four problems solved.

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