How not to run a democracy in three easy steps:
1. Cram everything into one bill that almost no one reads.
2. Vote for it, anyway.
3. Get out of town.
And since that is one of the best ways not to run a democracy, it is, naturally, what the New York State Legislature does like clockwork each June as the session comes to an end. It did it again this year, cementing its well-earned reputation for a lack of seriousness.
They call it the “Big Ugly” and for good reason. It’s a slobbering, catchall of a bill into which lawmakers can cram special favors, pet projects and other treats that might or might not withstand the cleansing power of public exposure and debate.
Thus far, except for a few items, the contents of the bill are largely unknown, although legislators, bless their hearts, did reveal that they had agreed on a four-year rebate program for state property taxpayers outside of New York City.
The property tax cap pushed through by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in his first term was renewed, along with rent control in New York City. Also, Cuomo wanted to be able to perform weddings, which a governor had not been empowered to do. He put that new power to work almost immediately, marrying two men Sunday in Manhattan. Most of the little goodies that mark “Big Ugly” remain to be ferreted out.
Some matters were specifically excluded from the bill, and most prominent among them was an effort to create a tax credit program to benefit non-public schools. Also failing to make the Big Ugly, as has been previously reported, was an effort supported by Cuomo and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, to create a mayoral control system of governance for the Buffalo School District.
But it’s the nature of the bill that is most concerning. Maybe the tax rebate program is a solid public benefit. To be sure, few New Yorkers would turn down extra money, but since the matter was not subject to public debate, we don’t know how it will affect state finances or if, as is likely, it should have been more generous.
As it stands, the program will provide different size rebates to property taxpayers depending upon their location in the state and their income. The first year’s rebate – scheduled to be mailed just before the 2016 Legislature election, go figure – will be $185 for upstate recipients. It’s nice, but why not now? Future check amounts will be related to a property taxpayer’s STAR exemption for school taxes, as well as location and income.
The irony is that the state’s Byzantine and secretive governing habits are part of what drives costs so high in New York and that, in turn, is what necessitates property tax rebates and the STAR program, itself. It’s a self-devouring beast.
An open government would create less influence for special interests whose demands drive up the costs of living in New York. Among those interests are the unions and trial lawyers for whom the state has crafted laws that serve their bottom lines over those of the taxpayers who shoulder the costs.
All in all, the Big Ugly is documentary evidence of the need for change in Albany. That need has been made achingly clear over the past several years, as high state officials have quit their posts under pressure brought on by bad behavior, criminal charges and even convictions.
But it doesn’t take criminality to render lawmakers unworthy of their constituents’ support. So do legislative shortcuts designed to allow them to pass favored bills without enduring the messiness that characterizes any real democracy.
It’s time for this to change.