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It's New York State Government, Charlie Brown

June 10, 2009 - John Whittaker
How does it feel to be Charlie Brown, my friends?
That's right, we're all a hapless, pear-shaped, bald kid (OK, you know what it's like to be me and Charlie Brown) with a dog (or cat, in my case) smarter than we are.
We are Charlie Brown.
Once again, our state government has pulled the football away just as we were about to kick it. State government is Lucy, but with the ability to pull away the football, our money, our jobs and our dog, all at the same time.
To recap: the Democrats took control of the Senate in November and, when taking office in January, proposed bills so crazy and costly that two Democrats and the remaining Republicans in the chamber voted Monday to wrest control from the Democrats, placing the Republicans back in control of the chamber. The Democrats, during the vote, walked out of the room and shut off the lights. On Tuesday, the Democrats tried to lock the Republicans out of the Senate chambers, insisting they're still in control of the agenda, still setting the pace.
We're in the midst of one of the worst financial crises in our state's history. Employers are fleeing New York state like the Japanese running from Godzilla, and our state Senate is shutting off the lights. The state's population trends are more depressing than my vertical jump, and we're not changing the course. The same crap happens year after year, and we sit here and take it, happy to be eating the poop.
What does it say about our state that the most effective leaders we ever see are in television, the product of some writer's imagination?
Where is our Jed Bartlet, our Leo McGarry, our Josh Lyman -- the guys with all the answers, pithy comebacks and ability to bridge a political aisle to solve a problem, all in an hour?
Every few years, we have elections, looking for a leader who can bring us together and put an end to all the ills of our state and help give us and our children a better tomorrow. Local officials make a good point when they say their hands are tied by what happens in Albany -- they can't reform pension contributions, they can't mandate consolidation, they can't reform the arbitration process that imposes budget-busting contracts.
So, when state elections roll around we try Republicans and Democrats, looking for someone to act as an intermediary between the parties and end the gridlock and partisan poopheadery. Sometimes, when we really want a change, we try Conservatives or Independents who promise major changes, but are in reality not that different from their friends in the major parties.
In the end, nothing changes.
Events continue to dictate our fortune because we and our elected officials are unable to seize the day and determine our fate. We're too busy dealing with day to day crap - and if you've ever seen the news releases coming out of Albany, you'll agree that the things the state Legislature deals with are absolute B.S. - to stick to a plan that fixes our problems.
Wait, that's actually part of the problem. We're too busy arguing over things that make no difference in our actual lives to fix the things that actually affect us. How much legislative manpower is spent on gay marriage, allowing fire trucks in parades, designating dog officers in Utica as peace officers, allowing farm operations to place signs near highways, requiring schools to print instructional expenses on their school report cards or allowing individual cities to impose occupancy taxes. These are actually things state Senators spend time on, I kid you not.
Part of the problem is you and I. We don't give our elected officials a very good road map. We're divided on every major issue, and most of the minor ones too. Politicians waste time on these things because they're safe. They won't get them bounced from office in the next election. Who can rightly be against allowing fire trucks in parades?
We can't even agree on the problems we want government to go after, much less begin proposing solutions.
The ongoing chaos in the New York Senate is only the latest example of why nothing ever changes in New York state except the population, which is sinking faster than my fantasy baseball team in the standings.
 Can We Agree On This?
Ask any Chautauqua County resident what we need and you're probably going to get a list that looks something like this.
We need jobs. We need to be able to keep more of our money. We need to encourage home ownership. We need people to be more involved in their communities. We need better schools for our children. We need to be able to make some landlords more accountable for the crappy properties they rent. We need things to do, places to go and events to stimulate our hearts and minds.
Can we all agree that we need those things? Is that a good place to start?
A 10-minute drive from Jamestown to Panama takes you through four separate policing jurisdictions (Jamestown, Lakewood-Busti, Ellicott, Chautauqua County) , three or four school districts (Jamestown, Southwestern, Panama and, if you take the long way around, Chautauqua Lake) and five or six government entities (Jamestown, Busti, Ellicott, North Harmony, Ashville, Lakewood).
With all that overhead, we wonder why taxes in New York are ridiculously high? We wonder why there is no money to pay for roads, or education, or for our employers to give us raises when we all work hard for too little money, or for new employers to come in and put our unemployed to work? We wonder why no one can make a new theatre or a new bar for bands to play work? We don't know why people can't afford to keep their houses maintained? We wonder why some kids don't have nice clothes when they go to school? It's surprising that, even when cool things happen in our backyard, that we can't afford to go?
Here's the policy statement I see coming from our state/county governments -- 1. We have a finite pool of money that we're spending like a drunken sailor on shore leave in Thailand. 2. Let's spend all our money on duplicative services because the taxpayers will just give us more. We can't be out of money, we still have checks and credit cards. 3. Let's have 600 taxing jurisdictions in one county. 4. Let's tax businesses until they move away. 5. We would nickel and dime taxpayers to death, but we've already bludgeoned them with a baseball bat. 6. Let's throw them the occasional bone to keep them happy - a new section of road, renovate a park or keep taxes at the same, albeit too high, level for a year.
Do we actually need a Rhodes Scholars to figure out for us how to make New York state prosperous?
Pass bills mandating municipal consolidation and do it now. There is too much government in our state, period.
Pick the things we have to do and pay for them. We have to fix roads and infrastructure. We have to educate children. We have to pay for police and fire. We have to run courts. Things we don't need go by the wayside.
Pick a tax burden that works for everybody and meet it. Pick a number, any number, get it approved by taxpayers and say we won't ask for more than this from you each year. Taxes can't continue going up. I mean, seriously, have any of our legislators seen Robin Hood? Guess what guys -- THIS IS SHERWOOD FRICKING FOREST AND YOU'RE THE BAD SHERIFF.
Make it possible for small business to open and stay open. Make it possible for manufacturing to thrive here. Lower taxes, educate the workforce, and maybe, just maybe, give some incentives for home ownership for those workers.
 Why We Spin Our Wheels
I'm just spitballing here, but I think what I just came up with, in one blog in one corner of the Internet in 10 minutes, would keep our legislators busy for years. And that's the problem.
Serious work needs to be done, and our state Senate is locking the doors. Serious work needs to be done, and we can't even get our elected officials to stay in the same room. Who farted in the Senate chambers? Did someone take a dump on the podium? Why can't you all get along?
I agree, the Republicans probably shouldn't have just taken control of the Senate the way they did. Could a more productive course of action simply been to defeat all the Democrats' legislation? Probably. And, weren't the Republicans in control for the last four decades? How did that work out for us?
Then again, what have the Democrats taken on in the last five months that actually helps us? Same-sex marriage? Yeah, that's going to get New York moving in the right direction.
Three men in a room government, which has ruled New York for far too long, doesn't work. The people and their interests aren't represented. The governor, Senate majority leader and Assembly majority leader don't know me, or any of you, from Adam. But, they know what helps them keep their cushy government jobs, and that's what they're going to do, which is why the same 3-4 general topics, including making Albany not work like a dysfunctional family, keep making the rounds.
Gov. David Paterson recently introduced legislation that would make it easier for municipal governments to pension contributions for their workers. This bill, or something really close to it, should have been passed last week. Actually, it should have been passed six years ago when pension contributions began to skyrocket and local taxpayers started getting hit between the eyes with it. Still, at least now there's a starting point for a discussion that won't happen until our state senators can sit in the same room and have a reasonable discussion.
That bill, and countless others, aren't being discussed this week in Albany, because we're arguing over whose in charge. Doesn't this sound like two four-year-olds arguing over who gets to sit next to the window?
Three men in a room doesn't work, but neither does no government at all.
For four years, I studied political science. I've read the writings of our founding fathers. I've read Alexis De Tocqueville. I've poured through the Federalist Papers. Nowhere does it say government should work like this. Nowhere does it say things have to be like this.
Is this the best we can do, argue over who's in charge? Isn't there a better way to govern?
The founding fathers thought a true democracy would be too unwieldy - 10 million different voices drowning each other out in what would become a droning buzz like a room full of bees. That's why they thought a representative republic, where the people elected representatives to handle affairs of state, was a more workable form of government.
The problem we have now is that partisanship, a loyalty to party rather than to the electorate, has its hand on the rudder of the ship of state. The interests of the electorate take a back seat to winning the political game.
I'm thinking way outside the box here, but maybe it's time to get rid of political parties. No more caucuses. No more party meetings, no more red and blue states or even party line votes. No political affiliations. If you want to run, go out and get the signatures on a petition and run for office.
I've grown tired of seeing our Chautauqua County Legislature vote down party lines on any controversial issue. Nothing gets done. We're stagnant, stale, stinky. I'm tired of hearing state officials argue more about who's in charge and who gets credit for fixing something than they do about settting an agreeable agenda.
We're people. We're all in this boat together. Listening to politicians, it's like Republicans live on one side of the street and Democrats on the other side, and never the two shall meet. That needs to end.
Cross the street. Shake a hand or two. Invite your Republican opponent in for coffee. Talk about issues. Or, should I be even a little more clear about this.
Get your lazy butts back into the Senate chamber and start doing the work we all pay you for. Now. Not later, Now.
Got it?


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