State makes progress, but more needed

The beginning of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address was annoying, from the fawning factory worker’s introduction to the governor’s boasting about his record. It’s nothing unexpected, however. It’s an election year, and governors always use this speech partly as a re-election ad.

Nevertheless, Gov. Cuomo does have accomplishments to brag about. Income taxes have gotten lower in relation to income, property taxes aren’t rising as fast as they were (although that’s stressed some counties and school districts), he’s worked out peaceful agreements with Native American tribes, and he’s earnestly trying ways to tackle the biggest structural deficiencies in state and local government. State budgets have been passed on time in recent years, a rarity in the last few decades, and instead of a gaping deficit, the state is looking at a surplus.

But while New York is more functional than it was, it hasn’t gotten more democratic. As much as ever, New York is run by three men in a room, and none of them has much reason to fear being voted out of office. The system is tilted in their favor.

We agree with the governor’s statement that ethics reform is important for all New Yorkers, but he didn’t say anything about campaign finance reform. That’s not surprising, since he is the biggest beneficiary of New York’s loose limits on political fundraising, which foster bribery and entrenched incumbents. What kind of opponent will stand up to someone with a $30 million war chest, as Cuomo has amassed? That’s why more than three dozen Republican legislators and county leaders are bypassing relatively qualified candidates like Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and instead trying to convince billionaire developer Donald Trump to run for governor, as the Buffalo News reported Thursday. When money becomes the name of the game, more important things are abandoned by the wayside.

Gov. Cuomo also isn’t talking about term limits for Assembly leadership positions, another thing that would make New York more democratic by rotating the seats of power. The Senate has enacted its own eight-year limits, but Sheldon Silver has been Assembly speaker – one of the aforementioned three men in a room – for 19 years. He should have lost that post after he used $100,000 in public funds as hush money to pay off women accusing one of his Assembly allies, Vito Lopez, of sexual harassment.

His house of the state Legislature has a sexual harassment problem. Over the weekend, Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak resigned amid claims he, like Mr. Lopez, was a serial harasser. The governor, to his credit, had demanded that Mr. Gabryszak either deny the charges or resign, but he hasn’t publicly taken on the Assembly leadership. Mr. Silver on Sunday sounded a different tone from the past, saying, “As I have stated from the start, sexual harassment has no place in the State Assembly, and it will not be tolerated. Mr. Gabryszak’s decision to resign his Assembly seat is the right one.” In fact, with Mr. Lopez, he tolerated it and even enabled it. The Assembly is long past due for a change of speaker.

Gov. Cuomo also, in 2012, backed down to legislative leaders on redistricting, which also hurt the cause of democracy. Having lawmakers draw their own districts clearly leads to gerrymandering, which gives incumbent politicians an unfair advantage over challengers. This is especially true when combined with lax campaign finance laws.

Gov. Cuomo is a legacy politician, the son of a governor, comfortable in the seat of power. He knows how to get things done, which is excellent after the dysfunction that has plagued the state in recent years, but reliance on powerful men before the will of the people is dangerous. Gov. Cuomo will do well as long as the things he gets done are what the people want rather than himself.

In 2006, when New York seemed to be humming right along and California was in shambles, a friend contrasted the two saying, “California is broken. New York isn’t broken; it’s just corrupt.” A few years later, New York was both broken and corrupt. We want it to be neither. Reforming campaign finance and rotating legislative leaders would be two good steps toward that goal.