March 8, 2015

More Political Equality, Please.

In a recent post, I asked for More Term Limits, Please because I believe that we do not need 'politicians for life' but instead need to move to a place where public service focuses more on the service part and less on the living-a-life-paid-for-by-the-public part. 

This is not a Democrat or Republican thing with me: I'm equally opposed to entrenched Dems and Reps and Indies. For example, while some cheered the long service John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who spent almost 60 years in Washington (and who was replaced by his wife), I cheered his retirement.

Term limits have very little chance of happening in most places; here in NY, for example, I think the process would be that the ones who would be directly impacted by the limits would need to pass the same bill in two consecutive legislative sessions, just so we could get the initiative on the ballot, and then the voters would need to approve the initiative, and then of course we'd need a couple of Commissions, Committees, Authorities and Boards pulled together in order to determine how term limits can be implemented, and then... well, you get the drift. Our chances are slim, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't fight for them.

In the meantime, we could also fight for some other changes (in addition to the ethics reforms put forth via sledgehammer by our Sonofa Governor Andrew Cuomo) that would introduce more equality and representation for New Yorkers across the board, which (I naively thought) is the point of having the Legislature in the first place. 

Here are five ideas that come to mind:
1. Offices of members of the Legislature should all be the same size, regardless of how long the politician has been in office or what leadership position person holds. If we can have open offices in business, where the CEO sits in the cube farm along with everyone else, why must we reward politicians with progressively bigger offices and better artwork for no real reason? 
The people our legislators represent are the same; I'm no different than a person in Buffalo or Rochester or Binghamton or Watertown or Orange County or Staten Island, I'm simply a New Yorker who is supposed to have representation in Albany. Maybe if our representatives were all treated equally, they might have an equal chance to represent us.
2. Publish a legislator scorecard.  If you pay attention to the newsletters you get from your legislators, you'd think they go to Albany, vote on one or two things, and then come home to have pictures taken with veterans, children and seniors. What the heck are they doing down there? Are they submitting legislation? Are they trying to, but being blocked by their own party leaders? Are they recording votes on things, participating in debates and so on? We have no idea what they're really doing, because they show and tell us only what they want to.  
The Assembly and the Senate should be required to publish a scorecard for each legislator, reflecting all votes that were offered up and how each member voted (no more voice votes); what legislation they attempted to put on the floor and what happened with it; what bills they co-sponsored, amendments they submitted, etc.
The information should be published monthly and delivered to all district constituents, posted unfiltered on each member's web page, and available on the Senate and Assembly webpages.  And, the costs associated with accumulating the information, publishing and mailing the scorecard should bet assessed to each legislator equally. 
3. Ban handouts of taxpayer dollars during the eight weeks leading up to an election. Remember Governor Cuomo traipsing up, down, and across the state holding press conferences announcing funds that he was handing out for economic development last year? Or my favorite, the property tax rebates which were approved in 2013 but not issued until the fall of 2014, when every single member of the legislature was up for reelection? That should be illegal.
I'm not saying that the state can't do business year round, that would be silly. Rather, politicians should not be allowed to swoop in on a community in the two months before the general election with suitcases full of cash and Publishers Clearing House-style prize checks, with full press coverage, and buy votes. It's wrong. We know it's wrong, the pols know it's wrong, and so do the reporters who cover these self-serving announcements.
When the money is appropriated, the schedule of when it will be distributed must accompany the announcement of the funding.  And, when the money is handed out, it must come with the a reminder that it's taxpayer dollars that were previously appropriated, not a gift bestowed upon us by someone running for office.
And if Albany must send an attention-grabbing person along with the money, well, that person cannot be an elected official, but should be a representative of the agency from which the funding flows.
4. Each legislative committee should have a permanent, not-partisan staff, which provides information equally to both parties. The size of the staff should be equal the number of legislators on each committee; the staff members should be employees of the State not of the Legislature, but the Leg should be charged for all of labor and benefits costs. Where possible, we should use SUNY or CUNY resources in the data gathering and analysis.
How does this help push the equality agenda? It removes partisanship from the research and investigation of issues that the Committees work on, and it removes the ability of the Leadership to influence what research gets done and presented to the Committee members. The party in the majority may have have more seats on the Committee, but all members will get the same unbiased, fairly gathered, equally shared information to use in their decision-making.
5. Hold Lobbyist Speed Dating events.  Each member of the Leg sits at their own table in a convention center or someplace equally public, under nice bright lights. Registered lobbyists have five minutes with each member to push their issue and when the bell rings, they move to the next table, whether that's a person they wanted to lobby or not. I'm sure they'll find some way to spend the five minutes.
To make this more fun, the members of the Assembly and the Senate will be seated in alphabetical order, and intermingled so a Republican Senator could be stuck in a row of Assembly Democrats, or vice versa. The lobbyists will also enter the room alphabetically, but go all the way to the, so lobbyist Mr. Abbott would start his speed rounds with Member Zambrowski.
On the chance that there are too many lobbyists -- OK,that was silly of me -- knowing there are more lobbyists than can fit into each session, the ones who don't make it into the room during the initial session will be first on the list for the next session.
The sessions should be open to the public, and the lobbyists who register to 'date' will be billed to cover the costs of the venue. The sessions should be rotated around the state, and all members of the Legislature would be required to attend each one. This will add an economic boost to all regions of the state, as we'll be able to fill unused dates in our floundering convention centers, maybe book some hotel rooms, that kind of thing.
After each session, a listing of the lobbyists who attended and the members they spoke with will be published on each Member's Scorecard and website, and also on the Assembly and Senate webpages. 
So there you have it: five changes that level the playing field for our elected officials and the people who lobby them, share wealth across the state, and provide real transparency for voters. They use our tax dollars wisely, tap into existing state resources on multiple levels, provide accountability, and heck, they might even cause more people to engage in the process.  

Now, I just need to find some willing partners to share this information with their friends, and their legislators.  Are you in?