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TIME TO END GAME OF FOLLOW THE LEADER

Taxes are killing homeowners. Medicaid bills are buckling counties. We need to cut costs. State legislators don't know where to start. I have an idea: Let's start with them.

A recent study confirmed the obvious: New York is a banana republic, ruled by three men -- the governor and party bosses Republican Joe Bruno and Democrat Shelly Silver. Some 200 lawmakers from around the state are all but powerless, standing in line behind lobbyists for face time with the three kings.

It begs the question: If we don't have representative government, why do we need representatives?

I'm more than half-serious. We've got 211 state legislators taking up usable space in Albany. Despite the dysfunction, the "election protection" of districts stuffed with partisan voters all but ensures the incumbents life terms. The return rate for Albany incumbents approaches 99 percent. All 17 veteran local lawmakers were re-elected Tuesday.

The elections are a sham, a formality to give the illusion of democracy. But the larger problem isn't Election Day, it's every other day.

We pay about $200 million a year for a Legislature that doesn't work. Each lawmaker makes at least $79,500, with benefits. Each has an office and staffers in Albany and in his hometown. Each gets meal money and travel expenses. Each gets tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars each year to sprinkle like fairy dust on favored groups and agencies.

Add the price of commissions and committees, and it costs us $1 million on average for the care and feeding of a single state lawmaker. For what?

A recent study by NYU's Brennan Center laid out the painful details: Lawmakers can't move a bill unless the party leader approves it. Committees are shams that mainly pad salaries of party loyalists. Legislators can't shape laws or hammer out compromises. Even when they form a pack, they can't move a bill the leader doesn't like. They follow the leader's command on late-budget bills most of them haven't read. They don't even have to be there -- no-shows are counted as "yes" votes.

They are the political equivalent of house pets, rewarded for obeying their party's master or punished for disobedience.

They can claim they fought for schools or tax cuts, but the truth is they weren't in the room when the deals got done.

"It's an unenviable position," said Jeremy Creelan of the Brennan Center. "They can either (claim) that they're fighting hard or admit they don't have much of a voice."

So why do we need them -- aside from a State Constitution that says we do?

Blair Horner isn't ready to pull the plug. Horner, a good-government activist, has seen lawmakers change a leader's mind or block his path. But he understands the jettison argument.

"Albany is a mess, and part of the solution is making the Legislature more open and fair," said Horner. "If they're not willing to do that, then it's their responsibility to justify their existence."

We've got lots of lawmakers who don't do a lot. The threat of blanket pink slips may be the only way to force stand-up-to-the-leader reforms, despite flapping lips to the contrary.

Albany is about access, about face time with the three kings. We can get that for less from lobbyists. County executives and Chamber of Commerce heads can come up with wish lists for the hired hands to deliver. When Joel Giambra wanted to add a penny to the sales tax, he didn't just go to lawmakers. He hired a lobbyist.

It's all a game -- and we're not winning. But there's a simple rule that works for us: You can't have a game without any players.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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