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Three Men in a Room

“It was said of the Bourbon kings that, individually and collectively, they neither forgot anything nor learned anything…”

So writes former New York State Senator Seymour P. Lachman in his new book, Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story of Power and Corruption in an American Statehouse (New Press, Septemer 2006). Lachman’s title refers to the triumvirate that has controlled Albany politics for decades—the governor, the Senate Majority Leader and the Assembly Speaker—and who Lachman suggests will share the same fate as the French royal family if they do not embrace reform.

The Long Island Democrat, who served nine years in the State Senate, wrote his book with Robert Polner of Newsday. He will take part in a panel discussion on Albany’s dysfunctions on Wednesday, September 13, 7-9pm, at Hallwalls at the Church. Lachman’s co-panelists are Lawrence Norden of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and Dr. William Ganley, Professor of Economics and Finance at Buffalo State College. The evening is co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara, Talking Leaves Books and WNED radio, whose news director, Jim Ranney, will moderate.

Three Men in a Room is both edifying and horrifying: Lachman’s privileged perspective on New York’s legislative practices is essential reading for would-be reformers, who will find the book confirms all of their worst fears. Combining personal anecdotes, historical background and a dismaying collection of statistics, Lachman makes the case for a sweeping revision of the way state government does business, by means no less dramatic than a state constitutional convention. His account also explains why, after four successful re-election bids, he resigned his seat in disgust in 2004. He had first won the seat in a 1996 special election. What he found in Albany was a legislature whose members had little or no say in crafting legislation; whose members traded obedience to their party and house leaders for perquisites, pork-barrel projects and easy re-election; which was in the sway of powerful, largely unregulated lobbyists; and which routinely failed to accomplish anything of substance, even its most basic responsibility to pass an annual budget on time.

In short, he found a government that was controlled almost entirely by three men in a room, who run New York State with little accountability to most New Yorkers. A government, Lachman notes in the book, which in 2002 managed to pass only 4.4 percent of the 16,892 bills legislators introduced—the lowest achievement record of any statehouse in the country.

“Over time I grew surprised, distressed, and finally repelled,” he writes, “by the routine subversion of democratic values and processes in a state that was once America’s most progressive and activist, a trailblazer in many aspects of economic development, the nurturing of a middle class, workers’ rights, public education, public health and poverty relief.”

Lachman tell his story with a cynicism that smolders rather than chills. Take this passage, for example:

Americans should never accept the gross abrogation of their democratic ideals, either in their state capitals or in Washington, where cabals, corporations, an army of lobbyists, and an array of special interests have turned Congress and the executive branch into a feeding trough for the richest and most influential interests. New York’s Legislature and many other state legislatures, which should be a bulwark against harmful federal actions or federal indifference, languish, too, from the effects of brazen patronage, corruption, boondoggles, inefficiency, knee-jerk aversion to innovation, and carefully rigged procedures to protect the decision makers and those who endear themselves to them.

Though he indicts a multitude of state governments in that passage, it becomes abundantly clear that Lachman believes New York is the worst of the lot. The Brennan Center’s Lawrence Norden concurs. Norden helped to write a 2004 study that underlined Albany’s many shortcomings.

“What we showed is that in many other states in the country there are much more transparent processes; that rank-and-file lawmakers have much more say in the way policy is shaped; that the public has much more say in the way policy is shaped; that the public is allowed to play much more of a role in things like hearings on bills; that legislators actually take time when they craft bills to consider the opinions of experts,” Norden says. “It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that when those things are added to the legislative process, that the legislative process produces better results.”

Norden is currently working on a followup to the Brennan Center’s 2004 report on New York State government, tracing the impact that various “reform” measures passed in 2005 have had on the way the state works. The report is due out at the end of this month.

“There were a lot of promises made after the 2004 elections about reforming the way things are done in Albany,” he says. “We’re taking a look at the data to see empirically if things in fact have changed. Without giving away too much, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, as far as we’re concerned.”

An apt narrator

Lachman brings more than an insider’s perspective to Three Men in a Room. Before he took office in 1996, he was a dean at City University of New York, where he taught political science and educational administration. He also served as president of the New York City Board of Education. He has since returned to academia, as a distinguished visiting professor at Adelphi University.

So he was no stranger to New York’s politics or its political history, which he digests in the book’s early chapters. Nonetheless, what he found in Albany upon his arrival in 1996 astonished him.

“Very few people know the real inner workings,” Lachman said in a recent interview with Artvoice. “It was quite different from what I had anticipated it would be. I was shocked.”

He found what former Governor Mario Cuomo described as a “Potemkin village,” an American version of the Supreme Soviet, in which the faithful marched in lockstep with the leaders of thier houses. As a Democrat in the Republican-controlled State Senate, Lachman quickly learned that he was expected to make no waves if he hoped, for example, to receive decent office space and a reasonably sized staff. Even office supplies were withheld from legislators who did not toe the line. Furthermore, to accomplish any good on behalf of his district, he would have to rely on the beneficence of the Senate Majority Leader, Joseph L. Bruno, who determined the amount of money each senator received in “member items”—largely unregulated dispersals that the leaders of both houses grant in exchange for quiet obedience.

The use of member items are among the many points of criticism raised by the 2004 Brennan Center report. According to Norden, they are emblematic of how state funds are spent with very little justification, oversight or accountability—a lack of basic information which makes the Brennan Center’s job difficult and a voter’s job nearly impossible.

“There is all this money being distributed and there’s really no explanation of who’s requesting it, where it’s going and why—hundreds of millions of dollars every year,” Norden says. “Maybe I can say, ‘That’s Bruno’s fault’ or ‘That’s Silver’s fault’ that there is all this money going to someplace without any kind of accountability, but for most New Yorkers there’s not much they can do about that. If I live in Buffalo, Silver and Bruno are not in my district.”

“It’s pretty easy to buy people off, pretty easy to bring home the bacon,” says says Buffalo State’s William Ganley. “All you need to do is bring home a few small grants to seem like a good legislator.”

“If they listen to their leaders, they get more money for member items, they get larger and more beautiful offices and they get a larger staff, which my wife used to call the slaves,” Lachman says.

One of the most disturbing practices Lachman found on arriving in Albany was the practice of empty-seat voting. Many of his colleagues hardly bothered to show up on the Senate floor; instead, they granted their right to vote to the Senate Majority Leader, who in any case decided exactly which bills would be allowed to reach the floor for a vote by means of his control of the powerful Rule Committee. Only those bills whose passage was ensured ever came to the floor for debate and a vote.

Likewise, the various other legislative committees, which ostensibly craft bills to be presented to the entire house to consider: “To be sure, we could, as legislators, attend as many committee meetings as our hearts desired,” Lachman writes:

But for many of us, there was really no point. We were expected simply to give our party’s ranking committee meber our proxy to vote any way that the house leader had advised him or her. At the same time, the proxy ensured that the committee meetings had on paper enough attendance, or a legal quorum, for the committee’s decisions about bills to count. As individuals, we knew we could not influence legislation or force our own bills to a vote.

As it was—and is—in the Senate, Lachman writes, so it was—and is—in the Assembly. Lachman says that lobbyists, who spent a record $140 million courting legislators in 2004 and earned themselves $150 million doing so, are more frequent visitors to the floors of both chambers than many legislators.

“I was shocked my first year in the Senate that on the last two nights of the legislative session there were approximately two or three times more lobbyists than there were senators on the floor,” Lachman says. “When I left the Senate it was four or five times as many. And who are these lobbyists? They’re the former chiefs of staff to the Speaker or to the Majority Leader, or the Majority Leader’s son, or a former Speaker. It’s shocking.”

More shocking still are Lachman’s probes into the working of public authorities, which are used to keep billions of dollars in debt and expenditures out of the state’s annual budget. There are more than 700 of these authorities, most of which are completely unknown to the public, and they carry $227 billion in debt—more than twice last’s year’s entire budget. Lachman writes:

Of that, only $56 billion—one quarter of the total—will be repaid through revenues generated by the authorities, such as tolls and other usage fees. Another $40 billion will be repaid by universities and hospitals that have availed themselves of funding throught the Dormitory and other authorities. The remainder, $187 billion, is to be paid off from state and local government revenues—another politer, and less-threatening-to-voters way of saying “taxes.”

He discusses the state’s practice of covering its failure to pass timely budgets—10 of the last 12 budgets have been late—by means of “Spring Borrowing”: bonds issued to keep state and local governments afloat while the budget process drags on for months past the legal deadline. Taxpayers, of course, foot the interest accrued to the lenders who issue those bonds.

As a particular examle of the legislature’s failure to discharge even those duties the law reguires, Lachman cites a court order obtained by the Citizens for Financial Equity, which argued for 10 years that the state’s education funding scheme discriminated against poor, urban school districts. The New York State Court of Appeals ordered the state to remedy the inequity by providing more than $5 billion in extra funding to those districts. “They have these court orders hanging over them and they’ve done nothing,” says the Brennan Center’s Norden. “They haven’t even attempted to publicly explain why they’ve done nothing.”

“She’s coming after us with a kitchen knife!”

The personal anecdotes in Lachman’s book are remarkable, though he left many out in order to stay focused on the need for real reform. This one, then, is an Artvoice exclusive:

“The second year I was in the Senate, all of a sudden a young intern and a staff member run in the door—we kept the door open—and they yelled, ‘Help us, save us, she’s coming after us with a kitchen knife!’

“One of my colleagues, who was on medication and who has done other things that have been mentioned in the paper—I won’t mention her name—was actually pursuing them with a kitchen knife. So we locked our door, and she became embarrassed. I didn’t talk to her for days, and then she was very upset that I allowed people to call me ‘Seymour’ or ‘Dr. Lachman’ or ‘Dean Lachman.’ Because anyone who would not call her ‘Senator,’ but by rather by her first or last name, she would never again talk to. She is ‘the Senator.’”

Lachman also recounts the Republican leadership’s attempt to lure him to the other side of the aisle by promising him a big hike in his member items allowance.

“I turned it down, because I’m a Democrat. But the amount of money is ridiculous. I was asked by the Majority Leader how much money I get in member items. I knew where he was leading, because several of my colleagues had changed parties. I said, ‘I get about $130,000 to distribute.’ He said, ‘How would you like to get two to three million to distribute? You’ll be invulnerable.’”

In his last re-election campaign, Lachman’s Republican opponent tried to use those numbers against him. He told Lachman’s constituents that he would be able to bring $3 million into the district—his reward for being a Republican and for unseating an especially ornery Democrat—whereas Lachman would be forever frozen at a paltry $130,000, and maybe even less.

“I said, ‘Yes. of course, it looks good on paper. But your party is opposed to the court’s demand that the legislature give $5.7 billion for public education in the State of New York. Your party is opposed to an increase in the minimum wage; how many people are affected by that? Your party is opposed to adequate housing. When you add everything up, the million dollars more that you’re getting is preventing tens of millions of dollar from reaching your constituents.’

“Fortunately, because my constituents trusted me and I had been there quite some time, my constituents decided to go with me rather than him.”

“There are minor changes that the reform groups want, but they really don’t understand what it is to exist in that environment. There really have to be major changes that only a constitutional convention can make.”

A call for drastic reform

“The political process in Albany is not really gridlock,” says Buffalo State’s Ganley. “It’s a game.”

Lachman believes that gubernatorial frontrunner Eliot Spitzer, an old ally, is serious about reforming the rules of that game, but that it won’t be easy. The leaders of both houses will contrive to hold onto their power, and Lachman believes that, before he leaves office, Governor George Pataki will try to pad the authorities and courts with his appointees, who will endeavor to preserve the status quo. Lachman believes a constitutional convention is the only way to open up the entire mechanism of state government and fix it.

Lachman ennumerates his proposed reforms at the very end of his book. They are as follows:

• Term limits for all Assembly members and senators.

• Eliminate special budget allocations worked out among house leaders and the governor for their special projects.

• Require total transparency of any and all member items, which are intended to serve community needs, not the electoral agenda of the house leaders.

• Set up a nonpartisan redistricting board, as the redistricting process is now used by Senate and Assembly leaders to prevent truly competitive elections and protect their house majorities.

• Establish a permanent, nonpartisan ethics commission to police the Legislature, executive branch and state agencies.

• Limit the state to a maximum of a dozen public authorities at any one time, keeping the authorities such as those responsible for transit and highways and scrapping the rest, incorprotating their functions into the regular state budget. At the same time, establish a nonpartisan commission with ample auditing staff to oversee the public authorities that remain and report on their activities and expenditures to the Legislature and the public.

• Require seniority-based appointments of committee chairs, subject to party vote, thus providing committees some autonomy from the house leaders to devise and debate legisaltion.

• Equalize resources for staffs ad services for every legislator, regardless whether he or she is in the dominant or minority party of his or her house. This will prevent the second-class treatment of minority-party mebers in both houses and the denial of one-person, one-vote principles for their constituents.

• Require every bill voted out of legislative committee to be voted on by the entire house, not selectively weeded out or junked by the house leader.

• Establish a mechanism to resolve legislative difference in compatible bills passed in the Senate and the Assembly.

• Establish a nonpartisan, independent budget office to monitor state budget and state finances, including debt accumulation and taxation.

Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center and William Ganley of Buffalo State, co-panelists with Lachman in next Wednesday’s discussion at Hallwalls, both believe a constitutional convention is an unrealistic proposal. If Albany refuses to take small steps toward reform, why would it venture such a huge leap?

“It might be less realistic in the sense that it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of time,” Norden says. “I think in the meantime we should do what we can to make the legislature accountable to the public for what it’s doing and what it’s not doing…I’d like one more go at reforming the rules and finding out if real reforms can be passed in the legislature, and if they can make a difference.”