It's easy to overreact to State of the State speeches. The annual addresses have no legal weight, being little more than a statement of intentions of the leader of one branch of the government. They mean nothing unless followed up by action.
Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer delivered his first State of the State speech Wednesday and it was a corker. He told New Yorkers what they have longed to hear and lawmakers much of what they dreaded: that their days of wine and roses now must end. Not only theirs, but the governor's, too.
As he took office, Spitzer issued a bracing set of ethics rules that will set a high standard of conduct within the executive branch while giving him the moral standing to push the Senate and Assembly to follow suit. Only hours later in his speech, he set forth an ambitious reform agenda. It could change the state. Among his proposals were:
*Reforming government, itself, so that Albany becomes "a catalyst for change instead of an impediment." Specifically, Spitzer called for reforms in the areas of ethics, lobbying, budgeting, local government, public authorities, the judicial system and campaign financing, with a goal of publicly financed elections.
Most significantly, he called for independent redistricting, which he correctly noted could lead to more competitive elections and, hence, a more responsive government. He promised to veto any redistricting plan that includes gerrymandered districts, though he won't have the opportunity to follow through on that threat unless he is re-elected in 2010.
All are important reforms designed to make government more accountable and transparent. Other reforms are urgent, but these are the ones that can transform Albany and make the others easier to achieve.
*Revitalizing the upstate economy by adapting to an innovation economy. Spitzer linked these goals to education reform, property tax reductions and increased aid to distressed regions. Significantly, he linked increased aid to better management and results in cities and schools, so the money doesn't simply vanish down a black hole.
*Improving the business climate through reforms in the workers' compensation system, the Wicks Law, the health care system, transportation, the availability and cost of energy and other areas.
*Reducing the rate of growth in state spending. "We must end this culture of spending money we do not have," he told legislators, who must have heard that with alarm.
It's a far-reaching agenda, and if he achieves half of it in four years, this will be a much different, much better state. What is more, with his huge margin of victory in November's election, Spitzer has a better chance than any recent governor of bringing the Legislature along.
But voters have a continuing role, as well. Having returned most of the same cast of characters to the Legislature, New Yorkers need to let them know, through letters, telephone calls, e-mails and face-to-face talks, that they expect them to be advocates for the reforms Spitzer outlined, not hindrances.
That will require a change in lawmakers' general mind-set. They, and the special interests who pull their strings, love the status quo. Still, with a popular governor on one side and energized voters on the other, change could come.
New Yorkers will get a better idea of the way Albany's winds are blowing later this month when Spitzer presents his budget proposal and, more significantly, when legislators respond. That will be interesting.