ALBANY — Government, to be effective and efficient, needs aggressive watchdogs — and not timid lapdogs.
But in Albany these days, though there are occasional exceptions, the sense among many statehouse observers is that the Legislature — the Assembly and the Senate — is not coming close to achieving its potential in providing oversight of this state government that controls $175 billion annually in taxpayer funds.
One of the lawmakers who excelled at holding bureaucrats’ feet to the fire in the pursuit of constructive reform, former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, is no longer in office. The Westchester Democrat with a fierce independent streak has been keeping an eye on state operations, however, and has maintained his strong understanding of what is needed to end dysfunction in state government.
“There are three reasons to have a Legislature,” he told me. “One is to pass laws. The other is to give the public access to the government. But the third is to oversee and control the executive branch. It is an essential element of any functioning democracy that the Legislature call to account the executive branch. And there is no such thing as to much of that.”
So we’re not talking about running around throwing sharp elbows and creating a ruckus just for the sake of serving up controversy to those of us in the press.
We’re focused on how this system of dynamic tension between the branches of government -- as constructed by the founders of this democracy -- can bring about a government that is more responsive to the people it is set up to serve, and be accountable and transparent.
That can only happen when the people’s representatives — the members of the Assembly and Senate — demand answers at hearings open to the public.
When lawmakers do take that responsibility seriously, good things happen, according to John Kaehny, director of Reinvent Albany, a good government group.
One example was the hearings that began in 2016, leading to new clean water regulations that were enacted after the industrial chemical PFOA was found in a public water supply in Hoosick Falls, he said.
And this year, several impassioned lawmakers, motivated by the #MeToo movement and a series of sexual harassment scandals both within the Legislature and state agencies, rode herd on bureaucrats at hearings that culminated with new legislation strengthening protections against hostile work environments, Kaehny noted.
But there have also been too many notable lapses, such as the inertia that gripped the Legislature following the bid-rigging scandals that stained the state’s upstate economic development programs. Among those snared in the federal corruption probe: Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s former top aide, Joseph Percoco, now confined to federal prison, and the former head of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Alain Kaloyeros, who has managed to avoid prison after appealing his conviction.
“There has never been a legislative hearing on what are the lessons learned from that scandal and what do we need to do to keep this from happening again,” said Kaehny. “We got complete crickets from the Legislature.”
In contrast, he said, the two houses of Congress are far more aggressive in fulfilling their roles as a co-equal branch of government by routinely holding oversight hearings for federal government programs.
In Albany, though, “it’s almost as if the legislative leaders have a deal with the governor not to get in his business, and that’s one of the reasons Albany is fundamentally not accountable,” Kaehny said.
He also suggested that the office of state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who like Cuomo is a Democrat, could be more aggressive in determining whether taxpayers are getting their bang from the buck from billions of dollars in state investments in a variety of programs.
While DiNapoli’s office does issue regular audits, Kaehny suggests there has been a tendency for the comptroller to avoid highlighting findings that could embarrass the Cuomo administration or pursue inquiries that might unnerve New York’s most powerful Democrat.
“They seem to fear the governor enormously,” he said of the comptroller’s office.
It seems natural for voters, when assessing candidates for public office, to support those who share their views on issues important to them.
But perhaps another yardstick ought to be: How tough will she or he be in asking the questions that need to be asked of those who hold great influence and power, regardless of political party affiliation?
Will they go to Albany and join the go-along, get-along crowd, seeking to be in good favor with those who control the perquisites of office?
Or will they be willing to rock the boat when rocking is needed? An investment in backbone by New York voters would make government more effective.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.