Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny: Book Order: "New York Politics"

Is this where I put in key words such as sex, lesbians, vampires, Christopher Lloyd and others things to which this blog do not pertain, but by putting them here, I may get hits from all the Christoper Lloyd lesbian vampire fans (and you know who you are)? This is the primarily humorous and occasionally rambling writings of Leon Tchaikovsky, humor writer. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Book Order: "New York Politics"

Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny

A former Democratic State Senator, John Brian Murtaugh, and a Political Science professor, Edward Schneier, have joined in creating a unique book regarding state government. For everyone working here who has said "they never teach this in school", this book indeed presents many topics not presented in textbooks yet recognized by legislative observers. While focused on our neighboring New York, this is a book that provides insights into how most state governments really operate.

The authors describe the theory and practice of state politics. New York, by traditional political design, has a State Senate controlled by Republicans and a State Assembly controlled by Democrats. This forms the basis for nearly continuous bitter legislative battles. The budget is a prime subject that provokes legislative fights.

Overall, New York has turned sharply towards favoring the political right wing. This is striking, the authors note, as the New York Republican Party used to be a leading component of Republican liberalism and liberal Democrats used to be have stronger voices. Both political parties overall have become decidedly more conservative.

In recent years, Republicans made gains in their numbers of legislative seats by reaching alliances with racial minority political groups. Republican legislators agreed to create legislative districts certain to be won by people of racial minorities. By concentrating Democratic votes in such districts, more districts in surrounding areas became represented by Republicans.

According to the authors, the traditional rivalry between the Republican controlled Senate and the Democratic controlled House creates ritualistic political activity. State Assembly Democrats traditionally pass bills creating new social programs and Senate Republicans traditionally pass legislation for drastic tax cuts, each knowing their bills will die in the other chamber. These hot topics become the issues they use to appeal to their constituencies, yet these are issues that, unless this legislative political structure changes, are doomed to remain unresolved.

Budget battles are common in the New York legislature. Interestingly, most of the state budget is mandated spending. The legislature usually engages in intense fighting over 2% to 3% of the state budget.

Legislative fights over the education budget have undertaken a traditional path. The Governor typically requests a low budget amount for schools knowing the legislature will later bargain for a higher amount. In order to pass a bill on school spending, the spending bill includes a "hold harmless" provision that no school district can lose money from the previous year’s budget. This practice, though, limits the remaining amount of funds that can be dispersed for less wealthy districts. Yet, urban Democrats usually let this "hold harmless" continue in deference to suburban Democratic legislators. This process has been repeated for several years. Unless a coalition of urban and rural legislators break this pattern, this process is likely to continue.

Legislative stability has been a New York tradition. The entire 20th century found the incumbent legislative reelection rates consistently above 80%. Often it was closer to 90%. Indeed, dramatic shifts in voting patterns between parties show the resiliency of the New York legislature. From 1990 to 1992, the percentage of votes cast for all Senate Democratic candidates shifted sharply from 45% to 50%. Yet, there was no change in the number of Democrats in the Senate. An even more dramatic drop in voting for Senate Democratic candidates, from 50% to 40% in 1994, resulted in the loss of only one Democratic seat.

Legislative turnover has decreased over time. In the decade of the 1890s, 59% of Senators and 56% of Assembly members elected were newly elected. In the 1920s, 26% of Senators and 30% of General Assembly members elected were newly elected. In the 1980s, 10% of General Assembly members elected and 13% of General Assembly members elected were newly elected.

Legislative party leadership determines which bills are presented for legislative votes. This leadership tends to strongly influence its members. The authors contend New York is a state where legislative leaders have amongst the greatest control. In one recent session, every single bill brought to a Senate vote passed the Senate.

As in Pennsylvania, most legislative proposals die in committee. In New York, each legislative session, 80% to 90% of all bills never leave the legislative committees to which they are referred. Committee chairs can be influential, although their powers depend on their expertise and closeness to legislative leadership.

Legislative floor activity is usually crafted in leadership and caucus meetings prior to legislative sessions. The authors claim research indicates interest groups are relatively weaker in New York compared to other states. This gives legislative leaders more leeway in crafting legislation.

While New York has strong legislative leaders, it is not the most senior members who are found as leaders. In terms of seniority, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno ranks 10th among 36 Republicans while Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver ranks 12th among 94 Democrats. The authors state that the ability to gain respect is a key factor, as well as establishing ability and credibility, in getting elected into leadership.

Legislative leaders attempt to maintain control over their caucus members through using a variety of methods. Errant members may have campaign contributions from political party sources reduced, face primary opponents recruited by leaders, receive pressure from lobbyists important to them, and/or find committee positions stripped from them. Yet, these measures are seldom used. The authors state most legislators support party leadership goals in their caucuses. In return, legislative leaders tend to be people well trusted by rank and file members who further tend to find success in advancing party issues outside of the legislature.

Legislators appear satisfied with their strong leadership. Only one candidate for legislative leader has made decentralizing power an issue, and that candidate did very poorly. A career downside is legislative leadership positions tend to be the final reach of their political lives. Not since 1936 when Speaker Irving Ives was elected to the U.S. Senate has a legislative leader been elected to higher statewide office. The authors believe the abilities that create good legislative leaders, such as the combination of fierce advocacy for party position along with an ability to achieve compromise, are features that make poor candidates in appealing to statewide voters.

Campaign contributions can play an important role in New York politics. The authors cite an example of Governor Pataki’s aide consulting contribution lists in determining which lobbyists were permitted into meetings with the Governor.

An interesting feature of the New York legislature, not found in many other legislatures, is that all legislators present automatically have their voting switches set to voting "Yes". A legislator wishing to vote against a bill must push the button to "No". Legislators who leave for any reason and are not present for a vote have their votes automatically are recorded as a "Yes".

Another different aspect of New York legislative procedure is there is an active public comment period during the time after the legislature passes a bill while the Governor considers it. The authors note the Governor receives a large number of citizen comments as well as statements from interest groups. This demonstrates a strong citizen interest not found in many other states.

The book also goes into great detail on New York’s administrative and judicial branches as well as local governments. This is a very useful book in learning how state and local governments operate, along with many case study examples and data. While this book narrowly considers New York, it provides great insights into governmental workings in general.


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