Monday, December 10, 2012

We have big problems with democracy in New York

When I came here from Carlisle, Pa. a little more than 10 years ago, I had a lot to learn.
I understood Pennsylvania government pretty well; I knew New York would be different, but I had no idea how different.
After a decade, I can tell you that government is much worse in Central New York. It suffers from structural problems that don’t exist (or are less severe) in Central Pennsylvania. And the problems are all interrelated; each of them makes the other ones worse.
While each of these merits exploration, here are some of them in a nutshell:
• Too many governments: Who taxes you? The answer is the state, the county, the school district, the city and maybe the library. If you don’t live in the city, substitute the town and perhaps the village. Who plows your road? It could be any of the above, except the school district and the library. This is inefficient and wasteful and adds many unnecessary layers of administration. When I came here I was amazed some people were taxed both by a village and a township for essentially the same thing. I always thought Maryland had the right idea; the county runs everything, even the schools.
• Too many elections: They’re run by different levels of government in different places at different times. It’s not surprising voter turnout here is abysmal; just the way incumbent politicians like it. In Pennsylvania there are two elections per year, period: a spring primary and a fall general election. All elections are run by the county and turnout, though still lower than it should be, is far better than here. And there’s no “making a primary.” There’s always a primary, even if there’s only one name on the ballot. Voters can write in a name if they don’t like the sole candidate.
• Too many taxes: In Pennsylvania, the state portion of school funding is smaller, making the state tax burden lower. As Albany does a poorer and poorer job of fulfilling its funding responsibilities, our local school taxes remain high or grow, our schools don’t get the money they need and our state taxes don’t go down. We all lose.
• Too much politics: Three men in a room, four men in a room, whatever. Forget what you learned in civics class about how a bill becomes law. In New York it’s all done in back-room deals for reasons the rest of us will never know. Most lawmakers sit in their leather-covered seats like overpaid bumps on a log until told by their party bosses how to vote... or else. Sadly, New York was ahead of the curve in this area; this seems to be the system of government the U.S. Congress has now adopted.
None of this is set in stone. It only exists because the citizens let it exist.
Politicians promise us reform, but we don’t hold their feet to the fire when they don’t deliver it. We accept their excuses and return them to office.
Most of us only bother to vote every four years... if that.
You could say we’re getting what we deserve: Government of the politicians, by the politicians and for the politicians.