Steamroller or Pussycat?

If Sheldon Silver is right and Eliot Spitzer has learned his lesson, then he has learned the wrong lesson, and the rest of us need to be worried. Silver's lesson probably is:

a) Don't contest elections, even against the other political party, and upset the deal.

b) Don't challenge existing fiscal priorities.

c) Don't concern yourself with fairness for the victims of those priorities.

The lesson should be don't get bogged down in the inside political "gotcha' game to the detriment of fighting like hell on a, b and c.

But if Silver is right, I guess the legislature can push through some pension enhancements, cut pay and benefits for new public employees, raise tax rates, push through some more tax breaks (especially for seniors), cut NYC's share of education funding, raise Medicaid spending while increasing the number of uninsured, and issue enough debt to recreate the 1970s in NYC once those who matter are gone. Because Eliot Spitzer will learn to cooperate.

Why did Spitzer focus on helicopter rides? Because it is easy. Just like being a prosecutor is easy. There is no politically organized group that believes it should be entitled to commit crimes. You get to play the hero, with no political enemies.

Challenging self-dealing policies that benefit lots of self-dealing people people who feel entitled, and who have never been forced to confront the extent of their benefits and burdens relative to others, is hard. You make enemies. People feel great when they make demands and win. They don’t want the losers to be identified, they want to pretend there aren’t any.

In the wake of “Copter-gate,” the consensus seems to be that as Governor Eliot Spitzer has been too harsh and tough. Not by my standards. Let me give (or re-give0 some examples.

What if, instead of focusing on helicopter rides, the Governor sent a letter, using political funds, to every parent in a New York City district of a Republican State Senator detailing how NYC's share of school aid was cut in each prior recession with negative consequences for education, and how with the help of their State Senator state aid was directed away from the city to the extent he thought was unfair. Why not claim that if the Republicans remain in control in the next recession, he might have to choose between destroying their children's education and a government shutdown that hurts the whole state? How about recommending that if the Republicans retain control of the State Senate, that parents consider leaving New York City? How about a postcard to every parent of a New York City newborn, using readily available databases, to the same effect?

Perhaps you have read my posts on taxes and generational equity, beginning with this one . How about finding a few dollars to have the New York State Department of Taxation send each state taxpayer a letter, based on their 2006 returns, detailing their tax situation? If the members of the household were under 65 and working, the letter could indicate how much was owed in state (and in NYC local) income taxes, and how much WOULD HAVE BEEN owed if the adults were over 65, didn’t have to work or children to take care of, received the VERY SAME income but in retirement and Social Security income rather than labor income. It could also indicate the size of the STAR benefit, and what it would have been if the household members had been over age 65, had the same income, and lived in the same house. If the adult household members were over 65, the letter could indicate the reverse — what they would have owed if they had to work for the money and were younger.

A follow up postcard from the Governor using political funds to those under, say, 45 could say that while he is concerned about New York’s senior citizens, every year more and more is done for them with no consideration of the burden on others. That is why he wanted equal property tax assistance for everyone, but the Republican State Senate forced him to accept yet another additional deal for seniors.

Speaking of burdens, you might have read my series of posts this June on just how high public school spending in the rest of New York State is, relative not only to New York State but also due to the national average. Why not send this information to taxpayers throughout the state. If the Department of Education won’t do it, privately run money could be used. A follow up letter to all New York City residents could explain that the state legislature has kept New York City’s schools underfinanced to support that excess — Dean Skelos’ postcard to his constituents showing NYC’s low share of state tax relief aid (and Long Island’s high share) could be attached, and the State Senate’s deal this year could be mentioned — along with what happened during the most recent recession during which the state was not in the middle of a school funding equity lawsuit. In the rest of the state, the high spending could be given as the real reason for high property taxes. Again, the state legislature’s policy of giving the most aid to whoever spends the most could be mentioned, along with pension enhancements that jack of spending outside the classroom.

Of course, if you are reading this post, you probably read what I would do to inform every transit rider and toll payer about the effect of the state legislature’s choices on them, which I described in this post among others. And, of course, I’ve mentioned that if I were doing labor negotiations they would begin with a letter to employees with less than 10 years seniority detailing all the past multi-tier contracts that have disadvantaged them to the benefit of those cashing in and moving out; my initial contact proposal would be differential compensation to even some of those differences out.

Eliot Spitzer has fought one battle of this kind — with the State Senate and the medio-industrial complex on Medicaid. He lost and should have learned not to fight those battles, right? Not necessarily. Since he was able to frame the issue as wasteful spending versus more people covered, he made it difficult for his fellow Democrats to back the special interests that fund it. And when the State Senate jumped to the defense of those special interests, it became held in contempt not only by Democrats but also by Republicans. Moreover, while Spitzer didn’t get what he wanted, he did get something. More importantly, Local 1199 and the Greater New York Hospital Association didn’t succeed in demanding, and getting, even more money, as they have in the past with no pushback and no consideration of anyone or anything else. The rest of New York’s powerful self-interested folks with good deals did get more benefits passed for themselves.

Most people aren’t going to care about who is doing what with a helicopter. Unless you can indict and convict, or better yet someone else does and you have nothing to do with it, those sort of squabbles just make the person making the accusation look bad. Who is the loser? How much money was taken by me for Joe Bruno’s helicopter rides to political events? I understand the issue, but most people don’t care.

Informing the losers that they have been the losers, and will keep being the losers if they keep voting in the same people, makes more enemies (winners with stronger powers of rationalization), but it also puts more pressure on the legislators. I have as much of a problem with the Democrats in the Assembly as the Republicans in the State Senate, but if Spitzer wants to go after Bruno that’s the way to do it. Make the winners play defense, instead of making more and more demands year after year after year, and you might not get new legislators, but you are more likely to get new policies. There is no need to name names and single out individuals, until the fall of 2008. They'll be time for that after the next budget. In fact that might be a good way to close each letter and postcard — ask your state legislator why it is fair that this has been done to you.

To those disappointed with the Steamroller’s style, just be glad I’m not in his place. Rather than telling everyone I was going to get my way, I would tell everyone what happened to them when the legislature got its way, by a vote of 212 to nothing, and demand that the legislature explain to the losers why they don’t matter. Of course, Pataki and others share the blame, but fortunately he’s no longer around for me to get ticked off at.