New York State History

Why New York Should Have a Constitutional Convention, But Still Needs the Feds

Not exactly what we had in mind (newamsterdamny.org)

Not exactly what we had in mind (newamsterdamny.org)

Since the election of Donald Trump, a lot has been made about the need for more localism.  With the federal government either locked in partisan paralysis or actively cutting back on services, there is a compelling argument for letting states run their own affairs – after all, states are the great laboratories of democracy.  However, we can look at the recent talk of holding a Constitutional Convention in New York to see why this argument is ultimately flawed.

There are two main reasons that localism can’t help improve how our cities/states are governed. First, our society has evolved into a highly complex, integrated national and global environment where the actions of distant players have local consequences.  We need a strong, active federal government to manage the needs of loosely connected people and places.  Despite what many would argue as too many onerous regulations from the federal government (on things like environmental policy), the larger trend over the last 40 years is the retreat of federal policy (on financial policy as one example), which has produced some of the greatest inequality in our country’s history.

Second, this assumes that states are functional enough to handle more responsibility, which is, sadly, not at all clear.  Part of this goes back to the first reason. Our economy and society are too complex and integrated for state-level governments to be able to address all of their citizens’ concerns. Even well run states can be left behind as the economy and demographics shift. But part of it is bad governance.  New York State is a prime example.

I’ve written a lot about the flaws within New York State’s governance (and though I’ve been highly critical of Governor Cuomo, most of those flaws are structural and not his fault per se.)  The quirks of history and geography have put a mostly rural state together with the country’s greatest city.  It has also separated commuters across three states that have more in common with each other than their other fellow citizens.  These issues are beyond the reach of a (state) Constitutional Convention, but show the limits to what a state can address.

However, here is a brief list of what could and should be fixed in New York.  These changes, along with many others certainly, could improve on the quality of governance in the state, but the larger point is to demonstrate that they still couldn’t address the larger trends that pose current and future problems for the state.

1.     One Full-Time Legislature

Many states have a two-body legislative system with part-time legislators based on logic from the US Constitution intended to spread out political power across regions and classes. The idea of the citizen-legislator has romantic undertones, but in practice it means you get an unprofessional class of elected officials who are ripe with conflicts of interest.  

The increasing nationalization of all politics and flooding of out-of-state money into local elections further undermines this quaint notion.  Post-election, lobbyist groups like ALEC often write legislation word-for-word in many states and provide funds and perks for many elected officials all to eager to lighten their load.

The "Three Men in A Room" Era of New York politics has been the opposite. Not only have two of those three people ended up in jail, but also the system made a mockery of both bodies of representation.  The dynamics of New York politics dictate that downstate voting power dominates the Democrat-led Assembly and downstate financial power dominates the Republican-led Senate. This unholy alliance works because we have too many weak legislators.

Paying professional politicians and staff to govern our state through one representative house would produce better outcomes with more transparency.  Singapore has shown how paying comparable private-sector salaries can improve the efficiency and efficacy of government.  We get what we pay for, and I’d rather pay fewer people more to do a better job. 

2.     Home Rule

Localism as it is described in many circles calls for cities to control more of their destinies in the Trump Age. That belies the fact that they can’t.  The US Constitution does not mention cities at all and empowers states exclusively outside of the federal level.  This means that a city like NYC doesn’t control its own transportation, taxation, or even education. 

The honest truth is that NYC is special (obviously I have fully embraced my NYC-centric worldview) and needs to run its own affairs.  It’s one of the world’s premiere cities and needs to have autonomy to run its own affairs to complete with global cities like London or Hong Kong.  That it can’t manage its sprawling obligations and opportunities as easily as Paris or London can costs NYC, New York, and the US. 

Some ideas have been floated for the Convention about returning limited home rule to NYC or as radical as creating autonomous regions (see the picture above) or even succession.  If there was some compromise that cut out a special designation for the 5 boroughs given its unique nature, but would still guarantee some upstate financial exchange - that might just work. But if such a scenario that could benefit both the city and the rest of the state (and the rest of its cities) even exists remains to be seen. And I for one don't want to create a scenario where one region suffers because the other separates.

Furthermore, it’s unlikely that upstate communities would want to surrender access to NYC tax dollars. More importantly, it’s unlikely that upstate politicians would want to surrender access to downstate political money, which would evaporate if upstate influence wasn’t needed.  And no governor, certainly not the current one, would want to surrender the power, and access to the spotlight, that NYC provides. 

3.     Debt Service

Technically, this is more about transparency, but how the state borrows money is in need of a major overhaul.  Right now the Constitution says that voters must approve any state borrowing over a certain amount but that hasn’t happened in decades.  This is because most state borrowing comes through sub-state authorities and agencies that are explicitly exempt from voter referendums. 

Many elected officials, including at one time Governor Cuomo, have criticized this “back-door” borrowing but when push comes to shove, it is a very convenient tool to get projects funded, so the practice continues.   At $300b, New York has the second highest state debt in the country (although, it has been on sound footing for several years.) 

It should be said that debt is not a bad thing for a state to have, especially when it is borrowing for infrastructure and public services that have long-term benefits. The problem is less the outright number or the state’s current ability to fund its debt service and more the ability to determine priorities. The assumption is that most voters won’t know enough or care enough about the state borrowing for a new bridge and might vote it down with enough protest.  This is unfortunately true in some cases. 

However, this is myopic.  The larger truth is that New York, like most states, gives money away for terrible projects all the time without facing voters’ wrath.  The city and state gave close to $500m to Yankee Stadium, without a “yes” from voters.  The Governor gave billions of dollars to upstate, without a “yes” from voters.  Just two weeks ago, it was announced that Aetna, the publicly traded insurance giant, will receive $34m in city/state money to move 250 jobs to Chelsea. Without having to justify expenses to voters, the state has wasted billions and will continue to. 

This all while expansion of public education, transportation, and pension funding all suffer.  It’s always the big-ticket items that get political pushback, but too many little things get through the cracks. This happens because the state thinks voters are ignorant and lazy when in reality they are ignored and misinformed.  Only by changing the way we control our taxes will that change.

There are a lot of other issues that could be addressed in a Convention and there are risks that silly ideas or even bad ones will get traction or distract the process.  These potential issues don’t outweigh the need to reboot the state of New York.  It is entirely healthy for citizens to revisit the organizing documents of its government. I hope that we do this fall. But it’s clear to me that without stronger federal action, cities and states can’t fend for themselves no matter how well run they are.

Why Mayors and Governors in New York Rarely Get Along and Why it's a Problem

Leave the bonds. Take the Cannoli. (north country public radio)

Leave the bonds. Take the Cannoli. (north country public radio)

Several news outlets in the city are reporting on the latest beef between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo and how it could harm upcoming housing projects in the city.  This particular beef is over federal tax-free bonds made available to states to encourage construction of affordable housing, but it represents just one rift of many between the two Democrats.  Troubling as this feud is for residents of NYC, it is part of an old, long-standing Great Game between the two most visible elected offices in the state and represents a much bigger problem with politics in New York.

First, the details of the bond feud matter a great deal in the ongoing affordability crisis in NYC. For decades, federal bonds (worth about $900m in 2014 and $700m in 2015) have been dolled out from New York State to New York City with little state interjection. These funds are tax-exempt on the federal, state, and city level which makes them attractive to developers and generally follows certain guidelines ensuring the creation of affordable housing units. The city has used these bonds in about 40% of recent affordable housing projects according to the NY Times article.

However, starting last year the state has begun to withhold money, which already delayed a city plan to develop 1,200 units. This trend has continued as state officials have been quietly informing city officials and developers over the last month that the city will no longer receive the same levels of money.  The funds that the city will get will now be micro-managed by the state through the Empire State Development Corporation and Public Authorities Control Board.  City officials and developers appear to be confused about why this change has occurred and are uncertain about how it will affect developments that have been approved or are close to construction. 

The Governor has downplayed the changes stating that they are intended to "supplement" rather than "supplant" the city's plan but so far has not made any of his own $20b housing plan's details public (he is expected to do so in April.) Given that Mayor de Blasio has made affordable housing a signature policy focus, these changes in funding options clearly put his housing plan at risk and the timing of the announcement has certainly raised eye-brows across the city and state.

The big question is if the money will still eventually be allotted to the same projects with the same goals that the Mayor has laid out.  If that is the end result, it will be hard not to view the move as a petty power grab by the Governor.  If, on the other hand, the Governor's housing plan is radically different than the Mayor's then it would be easier to claim that it represents a new policy focus, but could still have severe consequences for current projects. Either way, it is very public rebuff of the Mayor's agenda and throws many affordable housing projects up in the air.

Though some of the feud between the Mayor and the Governor might be chalked up to personality clashes or political differences, the reality is that this dynamic has been common in New York state politics for decades and speaks to a larger issue of political disfunction. The main culprits for this dynamic are New York State's unique history and geography.

New York State counties by geography and relative population size (maps4office)

New York State counties by geography and relative population size (maps4office)

The modern state border of New York evolved through a series of (still contested) treaties with the Iroquois Confederacy before and after The French and Indian War and the British after the Revolutionary War but also through equally contested agreements with Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This has created a widely varied geographical entity with little practical cohesion.  In 1797, Albany was chosen as the permanent capital city because it was central enough for state legislators to travel to and it didn't overly bias the state's business towards the dominance of New York, which by 1835 became the largest city in the country. This tension defines the state to this day.

As a result of its geography, New York State is better viewed as two distinct sub-states which are referred to as "upstate" and "downstate".  The definitions are debated, but generally Upstate New York is considered everything north and east of Westchester County and made up of smaller cities and rural communities while downstate consists of the metropolitan region of New York including Westchester and Long Island.  Out of 19.7 million state residents, 63% live downstate with 40% living in NYC. 

Politically, upstate has generally been more conservative than the downstate metropolitan region but the population difference has made New York an uncontested blue state, voting Democratic in every presidential election since 1988.  However, at the state level, given the structure of the State Senate, Republicans have held power almost exclusively since WWII, balancing out the large population difference between upstate and downstate.

This creates a unique political dynamic that some have even argued should be formally separated. That's not going to happen, but it shows just how different the two sub-states are in reality.  It also explains the different constituencies that a mayor and governor have to play to.  Even though Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio are both Democrats, and both broadly agree on many issues, they have to navigate vastly different political territory and interests. 

This is absolutely true of any governor/mayor relationship, but the size of New York City and its importance both nationally and internationally create different perceptions of the two offices. With the potential exception of Illinois/Chicago, no other state has a situation where the mayor of its major city is better known than its governor. That can create some bruised egos.

Further complicating the relationship is the fact that, though the mayor of New York City is generally higher profile, in reality the governor has significantly more power over the city.  Whether its tax policy, economic development funds, the MTA, the Port Authority, or housing laws the Governor controls much of New York City from Albany.  This creates a lot of tension between the offices, especially when they are held by the same party - whether it was Mayor Lindsay-Governor Rockefeller in the early 1970s, Mayor Koch-Governor (Mario) Cuomo in the 1980s, or Mayor Bloomberg-Governor Pataki in the 2000s.  If you're the mayor and the governor is the same party, you almost have to expect more opposition given the structure of power in Albany.

The upstate/downstate divide isn't just about political personalities clashing for headlines.  It has a major impact on policy decisions because it warps voter representation and turnout.

I've already mentioned how the population tilt makes it a safe blue state nationally for Democrats while the balance of power in the State Senate has been dominated by Republicans since WWII because of redistricting.  This balance is a false and dangerous one perpetuated by both parties.  Senate districts have overrepresented upstate while Assembly districts have overrepresented downstate making sure the status quo remains intact. This has resulted in stunning corruption across the state and has frozen the political discourse.

Senate Districts (latfor)

Senate Districts (latfor)

It has also caused historically low turnout.  In Governor Cuomo's re-election in 2014 (33%) and Mayor de Blasio's election in 2013 (28%) the state and city experienced their lowest turnout on record. Some of the low turnout in those elections can be explained by the lack of a real contest.  For Mayor de Blasio, winning the primary assured a sweeping victory in the general election. Governor Cuomo had a closer race, but was excepted to sail to victory and did.  

A more troubling explanation could be voter disillusionment.  It's not hard to become cynical when Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (two of the "Big 3" in state politics for a long time) were both found guilty of corruption while scores of other state officials have also been charged and convicted.  Voters don't have much faith in state politics and have turned away in New York State and beyond, which is surely fine with varied interests that benefit from the status quo. When voters aren't paying attention, a lot of deals can be made that they wouldn't like regardless of their political persuasion. 

It is natural and even healthy for tension to exist among elected officials.  Though much of the mayor-governor clashes in New York have been ego driven, some are based on policy and vision, which is how any healthy democracy should operate. The fact that the current dynamic between the Mayor and the Governor potentially distracts the media and voters from the larger issues of fair representation, transparency, and accountability at the state level is dangerous, however.  We can already see how the feud impacts affordable housing policy.  

 The ongoing calls to reform Albany must be repeated by the media to reach voters currently sitting out the process.  Only when more voters reenter the political discussion will we see the types of ethics reforms and policy changes that the state, whether up or down, needs.