The seven Democrats who represent Western New York in the State Assembly were faced with a choice Wednesday morning. They could represent their districts or they could represent their leader, Sheldon Silver. Only one stood up for his constituents.
Assemblyman William L. Parment of Jamestown was alone in voting against the Health Care Reform Act of 2000, a $9.3 billion measure whose well-meaning intentions were corrupted by secretive negotiations and an undisclosed, $350 million raid on the finances of New York's 57 counties.
Of the remaining six, one did not vote while the other five supported Silver, the Assembly's speaker, who engineered this subterfuge along with Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and union leader Dennis Rivera. The eight Republicans who represent this region all voted against the legislation.
Albany typically conducts public business behind closed doors. That is its way, and as indefensible as it is, lawmakers cannot derail every piece of legislation on account of it.
They can pick their fights, though, and when they are faced with a bill that combines important public policy, a significant expansion of public costs and a secret grab for county dollars, they need to be able to locate their courage. The Faint-Hearted Five could not. They bowed to Silver, and insulted their constituents in the process.
The centerpiece of the Health Care Reform Act is a new insurance program called Family Health Plus. It is designed to provide health coverage to about 1 million New Yorkers without insurance, a worthy goal.
In its early incarnations, the act had no impact on county finances. It was to be funded with state money from the tobacco lawsuit settlement and an increase in cigarette taxes which together would jar loose a matching bundle of federal dollars.
It didn't work out that way. Although Pataki and his co-conspirators didn't volunteer the information, their secret negotiations required the counties to put up hundreds of millions of dollars, an amount equal to their share of the tobacco settlement. It is money many counties had counted on for the urgent matter of tax or debt relief. Albany snatched it away, without consultation or question, and the Assembly said that was all right.
This is a problem with many tributaries. New York's gerrymandered districts, its Byzantine ballot-access laws, its lax ethics standards and the vote-buying program called member items are all designed to keep incumbents secure in their seats. With that kind of protection, they can act with impunity, and that's what they did this week.
They ought to pay a price for that, but they probably won't. At a minimum, though, Western New York taxpayers should know who supported them and who lacked the backbone to do it. Here are the names of the 14 Western New York assemblymen and how they voted on the Health Care Reform Act:
Voting for the law and the raid on the county's tobacco money were: Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo; Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo; Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore; Richard A. Smith, D-Hamburg; and Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga.
Voting against it were: Daniel J. Burling, R-Alexander; Robert A. Daly, R-Lewiston; James P. Hayes, R-Amherst; Charles H. Nesbit, R-Albion; William L. Parment, D-Jamestown; David E. Seaman, R-Lockport; Sandra Lee Wirth, R-Depew; and Catherine M. Young, R-Olean.
Arthur O. Eve, D-Buffalo, the deputy Assembly speaker, did not vote.