A Look Back at Albany

A Look Back at Albany

In the weeks and months ahead an enormous amount of attention will be paid to the transition of the White House to a new president. But little if any of the spotlight shines on Albany, New York, the home of our state capitol where its rich history has disappeared and been replaced by the demands of the voters for a more streamlined process.

Let’s start with some of the traditions of the past. By law, the state legislature must start the new year on the first Wednesday after the first Tuesday of the month. That’s not my language, it’s in the state constitution. Opening day was once an exciting event for both the general public and the members. The words of great and not so great governors provided some memorable and not so memorable moments.

The late Nelson Rockefeller brought his renowned charm and international aura into the flower-bedecked chamber. His personal cadre of advisors included Henry Kissinger, Richard Parsons and many other celebrities of the future. There are a few who still recall Governor Hugh Carey, in the wake of New York City’s near bankruptcy, warning the members that “the days of wine and roses are over.”

On one occasion, Governor Mario Cuomo, whose relationship with the legislature was often contentious, interrupted his formal remarks and referred to the assembled members as a “bunch of monkeys.” New York’s interim governor David Paterson, who rose to power overnight, due to Governor Eliot Spitzer’s sudden resignation, struggled mightily to look and sound like many of his predecessors.

Those memorable days are now over and probably never to repeated until some future governor chooses to once again begin the start of a legislative year in the same place where Governors Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt charted the state’s future. In the first departure from custom, Governor Andrew Cuomo combined his budget announcement with a formal event in the very cold and unattractive Albany convention center. This year the governor will venture to four different parts of the state to present his plans for 2017. The words will be important but the glamour of the past will be gone.

The legislative process in Albany has also changed dramatically. Back in the early 1960s, members thought that having microphones at each desk was revolutionary. There was one catch to that reform, as the Speaker could turn your microphone off if you were on his bad list. This was followed by the installation of an electronic board showing how each member was voting.

Fast forward to 2017. There are no longer piles of bills on a member’s desk. Instead there is an iPad where, if you have good eyesight, you can read the legislation that is being debated. Members cannot cast a vote and disappear as the system prevents that from happening. As far as historic debates, there are few if any on the floor of either house.

To the credit of the current leadership in today’s Albany, laws are made and the needs of the public are recognized. Unlike Congress, there are on-time budgets and agreements on difficult issues. But somehow the charm and the nostalgia of the past have disappeared, never to appear again in that fabled city. Maybe that’s the way it should be, or maybe not.

 

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The Burdens Facing President Trump

The Burdens Facing President Trump

On Jan. 5, 1966 I walked into a tiny Albany office in the state capitol, ready to take on the responsibility of being an elected member of the state Assembly.

Having had six years of experience in local government I felt that I could take on the responsibility of representing the 175,000 people who lived on the South Shore of Long Island, but I had my share of uneasiness.

I knew that state legislators made laws as I had seen many of them during my local service.

But there was no handbook or one-month preparatory class for newly elected officials.

Shortly after my arrival in Albany I was summoned to the Assembly chamber to take part in the seat selection process.

I didn’t expect to be seated in the first few rows of the chamber as they were reserved for the more senior members.

And as luck would have it, I was assigned a seat in the last row.

I confess that during those early days, I was in awe seeing state government, not as an outside observer, but as a member of a body that had the power to change people’s lives, hopefully for the better.

During that period of time Albany had its celebrities such as Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, surrounded by advisors such as Henry Kissinger.

These are a few observations illustrating the experience of a political neophyte.

I am contrasting this short history of my earliest days in politics, with the President-elect Donald J. Trump and what thoughts may or may not be going through his mind.

Mr. Trump is the son of a wealthy father. He always had the best of everything from military school to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

I was a first-generation office holder whose father toiled as a milkman and a grocery store owner.

Trump has had a charmed existence never wanting for anything and always able to get out of his business headaches either through bankruptcy or the use of other peoples’ money.

But no matter who you are in life, becoming an elected official, especially President of the United States and the voice of 300 million people, has to be a mind blowing experience.

Over the years we have known Donald Trump to be brash businessman, a great marketer and the creator of a successful brand.

But I am hopeful that on the first day that he walks into the fabled Oval Office, he takes a very deep breath and is in awe of what it’s like to be this country’s leader.

Running a real estate empire, building golf courses and condominiums, is not considered basic training to be a president.

In the private sector you can snap your fingers and everyone stands at attention. You can hire and fire with no real consequences as the world is not watching you.

The two-plus months leading up to the inauguration have been a circus sideshow.

Tweets on a cell phone attract attention and get some people nervous and upset.

But when you speak from the nation’s capital, words have a lot more meaning and the wrong words can lead to a national crisis.

You can brush aside the controversy of hacking by Russian President Putin, but once in office you can’t ignore a Russian invasion of a NATO ally.

Mr. Putin is not Mr. Rogers, and sooner or later he will turn your neighborhood upside down.

As a state legislator the only people who follow you around are your loyal staffers.

As President of the United States, you are followed by a soldier a suitcase that can start a nuclear war, with more consequences than a silly tweet.

The voters who supported Donald Trump may have chosen him because they viewed him as a person who didn’t believe in being politically correct.

But once you sit in the seat of power you have to be a lot more politically correct and a lot more measured in your words.

In the weeks and months ahead, the caring people of this country are hoping that the new president takes on the job with the seriousness that it deserves.

That he conducts himself in a manner  to be worthy of sitting in the Oval office.  And that someday some youngster says that a President Trump inspired him or her to seek high office.

That’s the burden a new president must bear and we all pray he will do it well for our sake.

NY’s Environment Would Suffer if Nukes Shut Down

New York has reached an environmental crossroads. It can take some modest actions to embark on a path that will reduce carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030 and expand the use of renewable power. Or it can do nothing and watch its carbon and other toxic emissions spike starting in 2017. Amazingly, some “environmentalists” are pushing for changes that would bring about the latter negative consequences.

At issue is the Clean Energy Standard (CES), which Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed and the New York Public Service Commission has unanimously approved. The good news is that some prominent environmental organizations, including Friends of the Earth, Environmental Progress and the African American Environmentalist Association, do strongly support the measure.

The opposition comes from special interests backing fossil fuels as well as some New York groups which say they have environmental concerns, such as the New York Public Interest Research Group and Hudson River Clearwater Sloop.

At the heart of the CES is a zero emissions credit (ZEC) which would provide modest and likely temporary subsidies for three Upstate nuclear power plants. The costs, which will add 2 percent to the typical consumer’s electricity bill, will ensure that 20 percent of New York’s electricity, all of which is carbon free, stays on line.
Without these plants … the vast majority of replacement power sources will come from fossil fuels.
This 2 percent cost can be more than offset by cutting many of the current taxes and fees that comprise up to 25 percent of a typical electricity bill.

The ZEC will also enable New York to retain $4 billion in net economic benefits over the next two years, including preserving thousands of good-paying, middle-class jobs which support families and communities. Without the ZEC, the Upstate plants will in all likelihood start closing in 2017.

Without these plants, there is no way around the fact that the vast majority of replacement power sources will come from fossil fuels, and predominantly out-of-state fossil fuel sources. This makes New York vulnerable to supply interruptions and to price spikes, especially on the coldest days of winter and the hottest of summer.

As Richard Kauffman, the chairman of Energy and Finance for New York, has pointed out, “Without our Upstate nuclear fleet, 31 million tons of CO2 would be released in just two years, the equivalent of adding 6 million cars to the road – resulting in an additional $1.4 billion in public health and other societal costs.”

Furthermore, most experts, including the U.S. Energy Information Administration, expect that natural gas prices will rise in the coming years, reducing or perhaps even eliminating the need for the ZEC.

Whatever the true motivation of groups opposing the CES and ZEC, such as harboring anti-nuclear ambitions, their policies would be devastating for New York’s economy and its environment.

The CES provides a framework for cutting New York’s carbon emissions by 2030, and has the support of many business organizations, labor unions, and community leaders. It should be implemented as soon as possible.

 

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2016 – Oh, What a Year it Was!

2016 – Oh, What a Year it Was!

We are close to the end of what has been a historic year. So many things happened affecting so many people that it is hard to give sufficient words to describe what each event or happening means. But a year-end look back is worth the time and effort, so I will take a shot at it.

It has been more than six weeks since the national election, and somehow most of the people I meet still seem to be in a state of shock. Most of the unhappy voters are from New York who supported Hillary Clinton. Quite a few of them assumed that the election was a done deal and that Clinton would be on her way to the White House. When the most factual book is written about this election, the writers will no doubt find that the Clinton campaign made many tactical mistakes that caused her to blow it.

On the subject of heroes, there is no bigger one that I can think of than former Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg. While he was in Albany, he became Governor Cuomo’s nemesis on the issue of funding for the disabled. At no time in the history of the state was any Assembly member able to force the governor to find more funding for a cause once the state budget was completed.

Weisenberg got every member of the Assembly and Senate to support his bill to allocate $90 million for programs for people in need. The bill passed both houses, and Weisenberg was under intense pressure to wait another year before the funding would be included in the state budget. He rejected the pressure and insisted that the money had to be approved without delay.

Even though he has left office, Weisenberg continues to be a relentless fighter for more funds for programs for the disabled. His latest campaign is to get the direct caregivers a pay increase. It’s hard to imagine that the people hired to take care of people with disabilities are making less than fast-food workers. In addition, Weisenberg is asking why these workers have such a high turnover rate and wants the state to look into the problem. He is traveling throughout the state to hold news conferences and use the media to keep up his battle for worker equality. If you are looking for a worthy charity, make a donation to the Harvey & Ellen Weisenberg Special Needs Program.

Among of the most disturbing things this past year were the criminal charges lodged against some highly visible Nassau County elected leaders. All of them are assumed to be innocent unless proven guilty. Watching the current political scene, it seems like there are ethical bonfires across the state. Once upon a time, elected leaders could step over the line and it went unnoticed. Today’s world is different, and but for a very small handful, too many politicians just don’t get it. I hope that the next group of leaders will respect the public’s desire to get the job done without scandal.

Two elected leaders are clearly back in the limelight. Former County Executive Tom Suozzi has regained his political footing and is now on his way to Congress, replacing Steve Israel, who did a terrific job. My fellow columnist Al D’Amato looks like a possible candidate to be an ambassador in the Trump administration. My only advice to the former senator is that he shouldn’t agree to an offer in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

There is no way that I would avoid talking about this year’s serious issue of hacking into our computer systems. The proven intrusion by Russian operatives is a warning that there is no system in this country that is safe from cyber-attacks. It’s the Democrats one day, and then it’s Google and the Defense Department. Tomorrow it could be your electric power system, your doctor’s office and multiple other places. So don’t take this occurrence as just an annoyance. Just because they didn’t hack your information this week doesn’t mean that you aren’t next in line.

To all my readers, have a Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year.

 

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A Word to the Wise

A Word to the Wise

There is a lot of tumult going on in Washington, D.C. with a new president on the way in and a two-term president on the way out. While there will be a lot of upheaval at the national level, the political problems here on Long Island have for the most part, escaped the attention of the general public. Wherever you look, there is trouble.

Nassau County currently has a number of prominent public officials facing criminal charges having to do with alleged violations of law. Each is entitled to the presumption of innocence, but it is hard for any of them to effectively serve the people when they have a dark cloud hanging over their heads.

Over in Suffolk County, things are not much quieter. There is a bitter feud going on between District Attorney Tom Spota and County Executive Steve Bellone. James Burke, the former police commissioner, has been sentenced to 46 months in prison for a variety of misdeeds. There is dissension in Islip town involving board members and the supervisor and feuding in a few other towns.

As a former public official, I do not have the power to decide who is right and who is wrong. Nor can I assign blame in a criminal case. However, I can’t help but express concern for the reputation of what I believe are the two most important counties in the state. The stories about elected officials being in trouble in Albany and downstate have tarnished the image of public service.

For the past 25 plus years, Long Island has been free of controversy and has functioned well under both Republicans and Democrats. Occasionally, some official has been accused of being a bad actor, but happily, those cases are infrequent.

For those who are members of the political establishment and those who want to be public officials in the future, there are lessons to be learned. We are finishing the year 2016. This is not 1950 when favors were traded and a number of politicians stepped over the line. The laws of this state are a lot tougher and there is a lot more welcome oversight from a large number of institutions.

The results of this year’s election provided proof that aggrieved voters are an unpredictable bunch and are willing to take risks to change the direction of government. That, in and of itself, should be a warning sign that the local voters are paying more attention than ever and are willing to take bold steps to change the status quo.

 

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