Who Needs Predictions: I’ve Got the Facts

January 3, 2013

Instead of predictions for 2013, I’m here to give you the facts (and nothing but the facts).

1. Further restrictions on the sale of certain types of firearms will pass both the NYC Council and NYS Legislature in 2013. They will not reduce the number of people who die in NYC subways which currently averages one a week––some as a result of people with mental health issues either jumping in front of trains or pushing someone else off the platform.
2. New Yorker taxpayers will not be told how much federal Sandy relief aid will come out of their pockets. Gov. Cuomo will not inform the public that every dollar in federal relief will be borrowed money that taxpayers will have to pay back in higher federal taxes for decades.
3. The 2013 State Budget will be balanced as the law requires, but Gov. Cuomo and the NYS Legislature will use budgeting tricks, mirrors and slight of hand to accomplish it.
4. More than one locality will file for bankruptcy in 2013.
5. Voters will reject as many school district consolidation votes as they pass, refusing to see the writing on the wall––that it costs more to run two separate small school districts than one combined district and results in inferior instruction to boot.
6. More Democrats will join the Independent Democratic Conference in the NYS Senate when they realize membership gives them more power.
7. At least one daily newspaper will switch to a bi-weekly or weekly publication schedule.
8. Hillary Clinton announce that she will not be a candidate for the Presidency in 2016.
9. The Buffalo Bills will not make the playoffs in 2013.
10. The Empire Page will find a new owner in 2013 and Peter Pollak will retire (once again) to write more novels.

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The Sham of Redistricting Reform

May 11, 2012

The state’s editorial boards sound like a broken record on redistricting reform. Their claim? That an independent commission would create fairer districts. Unfortunately, they’ve bought an argument based on unexamined assumptions. Redistricting reform would neither remove the bias from the process nor result in fairer districts. What it would do is undermine the public’s voice in state government.

First, let’s examine the concept that redistricting reform would produce an “independent” commission. What does independent mean in this context? Would commissioners only come from people who are not enrolled in a political party? I doubt such a restriction is either intended or would stand up in court. Would political considerations be removed from the selection process? Not in the least. The commissioners would be chosen––as all such bodies are chosen––by the governor, the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader. So, on what basis would such commissioners be independent? The answer: None.

Further, the idea that an independent commission would be able to draw lines that are fairer than those drawn by elected officials is based on false assumptions. The rap on the current system is that lines are drawn to favor incumbents. (P.S.: The media like to ignore the fact that lines drawn by legislators are repeatedly found to be both legal and constitutional.)

The question then is on what basis would an independent commission’s lines be drawn? The best answer one can extract from editorials on the topic is districts that are shaped more like circles than hot dogs. That the shape of a district has anything to do with fairness is another unsubstantiated assumption.

The truth of the matter is that the independent commissioners wouldn’t draw a single line. The lines will be drawn by paid staffers using sophisticated computer programs, and since there must be some criteria to draw the lines, the biases in the system would be put there either by the programmer or by the staffers running the program.

An independent commission will hide the biases that are inevitably built into drawing district lines. The commission will issue a press release declaring that the new lines are unbiased. But they’d be unbiased by definition not in fact. The public would never know what biases have been built into their districts and thus our democratic system will be that much diminished.

The notion of an independent election commission ignores the fact that one of the deserved rewards of having been elected to a seat in the State Legislature is the power to control district lines for future elections.

Elected officials are supposed to make decisions that favor their constituents. They are supposed to provide benefits to their districts and to the groups that favored their election. The notion that elected officials are should be neutral or “objective” is absurd on the face of it, yet the state’s newspapers continue to advocate that position as if it were logical and sound.

What then is behind redistricting reform? My guess is that it is a reaction to the fact that the public is more and more upset about how things are done in Albany and in Washington. Redistricting reform is being offered as a way to convince the public that government is paying attention. Since reform will not change one law or one policy, what reformers must hope is that they can put it in place and retire with their fat pensions before the public catches on to the hoax.

It’s time to put this redistricting farce to bed. No commission can be independent and district lines cannot be drawn without prejudice. In the end, the public loses if redistricting reform is passed.


GSA Implodes; White House Avoids Blame — Yet Again

April 3, 2012

Reading the NY Times and Washington Post, it’s hard not to conclude that the primary goal of both publications in their coverage was to minimize the White House’s responsibility for the GSA scandal.

Their take––like most scandal press coverage––is that a few individuals, who will now lose their jobs, ignored policy. A few bad apples threaten the otherwise good barrel.

But is that the REAL story?

We have to ask why did it take 18 months for this scandal to be exposed?

The reason in this case was that not until someone tipped off the Inspector General’s office did the extravagance of the October 2010 event get called into question. So one must ask why all but a handful of the GSA employees in Washington involved in the planning of the event and the 300 persons who attended this event found nothing untoward in being the recipients of $823,000 worth of expenditures for the purpose of training in job skills and “an exchange of ideas between higher-ups”? (Washington Post)

Those expenditures included $44 per person daily breakfasts, semi-private catered in-room parties, $75,000 for a team-building exercise, $146,000 on catered food and drink, a “mind reader,” a clown, $6,325 on commemorative coins in velvet boxes and $8,130 for “yearbooks” with photos for all participants.

Let’s go over that one more time to make sure everyone gets the point.

We’re not just talking about a few maverick higher-ups who spent lavishly––although they did, taking six trips out to Vegas to make sure the city could handled their needs. What we have is a case where almost all of the 300 GAO employees involved felt what they experienced at the M Resort and Casino was responsible use of their time and of the taxpayer’s dollar. Only a few complained.

Anyone who did not formally complain should be disciplined and it should be made clear to all 12,600 GSA employees that to remain silent in the face of such behavior is grounds for dismissal.

Now let’s come back to the Obama Administration’s role in this.

Recall it was only last summer when we learned that the Justice Department was prolifigate in its conference spending. While the $16 originally reported as the cost of muffins was miscalculated, the Justice did not retract the expenditure of $7.32 per serving for “beef Wellington hors d’oeuvres” or the “$76-per-person” conference luncheon which featured “slow-cooked Berkshire pork carnitas, hearts-of-romaine salad — and coffee at $8.24 a cup.” (Washington Post, 10/28/11)

The director of the Office of Budget and Management came to the President’s rescue on that occasion stating “from the start of this Administration, it has been a priority of the President to make sure that the Government operates with the utmost efficiency and eliminates unnecessary or wasteful spending.” (Washington Post)

The president then ordered “a government-wide review of conference expenses.” Too late as it turned out for the GSA administrators who followed “neither federal procurement laws nor its own policy on conference spending.” (What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas – GSA is “over the top”, Project on Government Oversight, 4/3/12)

But even as the Inspector General was investigating mind-reader gate, the Project on Government Oversight reports the GSA is planning to send 150 of its employees to San Diego in July for 5 days for a conference of industrial operations analysts and administrative contracting officers. This conference will cost taxpayers upwards of $150,000 before muffins, hors d’oeuvres and in-room parties. I hear they’re looking for a motivational speaker who can help GSA employees weather a scandal. Name your price.

What it comes down to is the President continues to talk a good game, but has made little headway in the battle against privilege and entitlement that exists in the federal bureaucracy. On what basis could GSA managers justify the need to go “over the top” on behalf of 300 regional employees? What payoff did they imagine would result from the job skills training or the exchange of ideas among higher-ups?

In truth, these events are a form of payoff for the onerous duties that befall people who sacrifice what would otherwise be magnificent careers to work for the federal government AND for those contractors who suffer from having to submit so much paperwork in order to sell their $500 screwdrivers to the federal government. If this were not par for the GSA course, a lot of people would have said “Are you kidding me? No way.”

What’s needed is a policy that says the GSA shall have no conferences under any circumstances for any of its employees. After all those employees undoubtedly have the latest in communications technologies. If they can’t exchange ideas via email, text-messaging or courier pigeon, their ideas probably aren’t worth exchanging and if they don’t have the skills necessary to do the job, who in the hell hired them?


Poll Q of the Week: Pension Reform

January 23, 2012

This week Empire Page visitors are being asked to grade Gov. Cuomo’s pension reform program which includes a defined contribution option for new state hires. The plan, which the governor’s office claims will save taxpayers $93 billion over the next 30 years, would also create a new tier for newly hired state workers. Under the new tier, the retirement age would be raised from 62 to 65 and employees contribution to their retirement would be greater than is currently the case.

Triborough Amendment Repeal Favored

Empire Page visitors voted overwhelmingly in favor of repealing this provision 64% in favor versus 24% opposed. Interestingly 7 percent of the responders have never heard of the Triborough Amendment to the law that governs collective bargaining in the public sector. This amendment prohibits a public entity from altering any provision of an expired labor agreement until a new agreement is reached. Opponents of the Triborough Amendment argue that it undermines the collective bargaining process by reducing the incentive of unions from reaching a new agreement.


New Blog on Government Reform

January 13, 2012

The Government Law Project at Albany Law School under the leadership of Dean Patricia Salkin has launched a new blog on government reform at http://governmentreform.wordpress.com/.

Readers will find more information than opinion on this blog, but as in the case of many public policy issues these days, more information on this topic is sorely needed.

Posts in recent days have reported on Governor Cuomo’s state of the state, on reform efforts in Indiana and Ohio, on the benefits of going “paperless,” and on public-private partnerships. The latter topic is particularly significant given Gov. Cuomo’s plan to utilize such partnerships to finance major projects in New York.