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Albany still needs change Legislature's political protectionism dulled budgetary push for reforms

Observers have understandably focused on Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer during the self-declared reformer's first three months on the job, and while many have appropriately criticized his performance regarding such issues as openness, he is only one part of the equation.

New Yorkers can elect reform-minded chief executives from now until Niagara Falls dries up, but unless the Legislature also commits to changing its secretive and autocratic ways, New York government will never become any better than it is today.

The most obvious example of the death grip lawmakers hold on Albany is in the way the budget is negotiated. Spitzer came to office pledging to change the three-men-in-a-room culture that shuts out rank-and-file legislators and keeps the public in the dark. He caved in quickly to the old ways, but he did so largely for two reasons: One, he is new on the job and had his hands full the first time out and, two, the Legislature has taken no serious steps to commit itself to a fully open, transparent system.
But as legislators happily made clear at least twice since January, they are integral to the process and they are entirely willing to throw their weight around. What is more, lawmakers can do this even if, as occurred in February, they had previously promised to pursue a particular matter in an agreed-upon way. As Spitzer learned when Assembly Democrats engineered the selection of Thomas P. DiNapoli as state comptroller, lawmakers can -- and do -- renege.
That's a knife that cuts both ways, though, because having that weight to throw around also makes them integral to the problem that every taxpaying New Yorker understands in some fashion. Residents of this state shoulder one of the nation's highest tax burdens largely because the Legislature has weight and because it is dysfunctional, organizing itself first to benefit its members and its high-dollar patrons and then, sometimes, voters.
Last year, those voters flocked to Spitzer, a candidate with a platform and history of reform. The Legislature responded ambivalently -- signing on to an important workers' compensation reform but installing a crony as state comptroller. It approved significant changes in how school aid is distributed in New York, but drove an already-high budget to stratospheric levels of spending.
Most of all, though, the Legislature has done little to reform its own rules of procedure. These are the problems pointed out in the explosive Brennan Center report that tagged the Legislature as the country's most dysfunctional, after building an irrefutable case.
The Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader still control what their chambers will vote on, and since they control leadership appointments and staffing, they also control how those votes come out. The legislative leaders also keep a choke hold on how measures work their way through the system, therefore limiting what can even be considered for a vote.
It's a system designed to suffocate unwanted reforms. Human nature being what it is, that includes reforms that diminish the power of those who control what reforms are adopted. That's a cycle that can be broken only by fear. Lawmakers have to believe that it is in their interest to change a legislative system that has helped make the upstate economy an undeclared disaster area. That means fearing voters, who now have a tool to focus that fear: a reform-minded governor.
Spitzer needs to use his authority and his bully pulpit to push the Legislature toward reform. He hasn't proved to be the steamroller his campaign seemed to promise, but he still is the hammer. If voters want their reform message to be heard, they have to be the anvil.

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