Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

The budget is a bunch of junk

April 8, 2015

The New York state budget is passed. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has been vigorously attacking corruption and potential corruption in New York state. He says that a big part of the problem is the long-standing tradition of three men in a room — the governor, the speaker and the president of the Senate. So no matter how often we are told that there are 211 members of the Assembly and Senate, it really turns out that there are only three essential players, and that’s where the mischief begins.

As it happens, Andrew Cuomo used his substantial powers to load the budget with things he said he wanted. We’ll never know when he dropped some of the things he said he wanted, like a higher minimum wage, a disgraceful education tax credit that would have helped pay for parochial schools, the DREAM Act which would have provided college financial aid to undocumented immigrants and ethics reform insisting that legislators fully disclose all their outside income.

Did he really want those things or did he just want people, especially his left flank, to THINK that he wanted them. Was he going for results or was he going for the perception on the part of voters that he wanted those things? If you read The Contender, a new unauthorized biography of Andrew Cuomo by Michael Shnayerson, you learn in no uncertain terms that Andrew can be ruthless in pursuit of his political goals when he wants to be. So when he doesn’t get things he says he wants, we have to at least suspect that he never really cared about them in the first place.

The question, of course, is whether or not he underestimates how smart people are. For example, he holds up his fist Rocky style with Assembly Speaker Heastie and announces that he got what he wanted in an ethics package. As it turns out, there are holes in the new ethics provisions big enough to drive a cement truck through, including a provision that if a legislator doesn’t want to tell how much money he is getting from a client, he doesn’t have to but he can file an appeal that will surely be approved. Think about that one — Shelly Silver, the indicted former Speaker, stands accused of not telling who all of his clients were.

Then there is a provision in a so-called pension reform bill that will have to be voted on stipulating that even if a crooked legislator is stripped of his pension, his or her spouse is entitled to some of it! Unbelievable. Presumably, that same spouse was living off the crooked legislator’s ill-begotten gains.

Of course, Andrew went out and claimed victory in things like his ethics reforms way in advance of the release of the budget. Naturally, we have to wait to get the details. In fact, the legislators had to wait until a few hours before the voting began for the printed copies to be put on their desks. You see, under the New York State Constitution, each bill has to be aged, much like a strip sirloin steak. In this case, the aging process took three days. However, there is a provision in the Constitution that says that if there is an emergency (presumably on the magnitude of a tidal wave) the governor can use what is called a message of necessity, without the aging. Unfortunately, New York governors have been known to use the message of necessity to pass non-emergency bills. In that way, legislators are treated like a bunch of sheep and don’t even have an opportunity to examine and maybe even object to the legislation.

The reason we hold our public officials in such low regard is that they often act in a self-serving way just because they can. As Pete Seeger sang, “When will they ever learn?” Apparently, never.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 4/6/15

Rapist deserves what he got… and other musings

April 6, 2015

Emmanuel T. Bile Jr. found guilty on two counts of rape. Look, there are a lot of bad people in the world. Some of them are troubled from birth, some seem to gather more rage as the years pass.

These are people who are so filled with anger that it spills out of them. You’ll find them in your neighborhood. We all have a common experience with them. They don’t get mixed reviews — it is pretty much unanimous.

Because we allow maximum freedom in our society, you just learn to keep away from them. You know that the fuse is lit and you sure don’t want to be around when the explosion comes. Sometimes they get a free pass, other times they end up in court for injuring or provoking others.

Ask yourself this: “Who in the world would gang rape a college student? Who were the perpetrators’ parents? Who taught values to these kids? I’m not talking about anything but the difference between right and wrong. The guy was found guilty but the victim will still be scarred for life. The accused will be spending a large part of his life in prison. Good. She could have been your daughter. He could have been someone you know.

Carry yourselves more like Kennedy. Barack Obama would not be president if it weren’t for Ted Kennedy. At a crucial time in the campaign — and I will never forget it — Teddy Kennedy and his niece, Carolyn Kennedy Schlossberg, came out on stage with Obama and gave him a ringing endorsement. I have no doubt that carried the tide.

It took real guts to do it and the liberal lion of the Senate in one of his last major acts before he died pushed Obama over the top. Now the president has returned the favor. He showed up at the opening of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute and eulogized the late senator who has always been one of my favorite people on earth. There are so few politicians around with that man’s integrity. More and more, we read about the foibles of Robert and John Kennedy and let there be no mistake that Teddy made some mistakes, too. But give me my choice of the three and I’ll take Teddy any day.

The city of Pittsfield has always been unhappy with its mayors. I get that. This jewel of a city, with its lakes, mountains, and culture, has so much potential but it all just never seems to come together. Mayor Jimmy Ruberto was a sensational mayor but he had to deal with a torrent of criticism from bloggers and other anonymous, angry people. Current Mayor Dan Bianchi positioned himself as an alternative to business as usual. Now he is being opposed by a coalition of progressive activists who say that they can do better.

To the puzzled outsider, it all looks kind of frantic and unhappy. Yet if you look closer, this is what democracy is all about. We need more people who think they can do a better job to run for political office. An incumbent doesn’t particularly like it when a candidate presents him or herself to the people but choice is always a good thing.

What in the world is going on at Shakespeare & Company, one of the most important cultural assets in the Berkshires? It’s one of the places that makes this area a go-to destination They fired their artistic director, Tony Simotes, who literally saved their behinds from financial ruin. Now they are embarrassed as the great Kate Maguire has reached out to hire Simotes as managing director and artistic associate at the Berkshire Theatre Group. There has been some major reshuffling on the board. Hmmm. Maybe big money donors can’t buy everything.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 4/4/15

Bad politicians outnumber the bad teachers

March 31, 2015

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has really ticked off teachers in New York state. It isn’t that he needed to do it — he just did it. Not only was it unfair, it was a bad strategic move and he is paying for it. He got a million fewer votes in his second election than the first time out and many of those people were teachers, their families and their friends.

We are talking about good people here. Our teachers are the best of the best in our society. Some mean-spirited politicians have characterized them as lazy, indolent folks who work from nine to three and whose ranks are riddled with incompetent practitioners. These critics ignore the realities of trying to teach kids who all too often live in single parent homes and who are “latch-key” in every sense of the word. The stereotype of uncaring, incompetent teachers is just nonsense. Teachers are not the problem — clearly society is the issue. When kids are left to their own devices and don’t have the help that they need at home, the results are predictable.

I am married to a wonderful woman who put in years as an elementary, middle school and high school teacher. She was at her desk by seven. She taught five or six classes a day. She brought home reams of papers to mark and somehow, she managed to raise two accomplished and wonderful children, create the country’s first Holocaust unit that every high school student had to take and, of course, put up with me. And, oh, by the way, she managed to drive over an hour each way, three nights a week, to earn her doctorate. When she went to teach college she really did have survivor’s guilt about the colleagues she left in the trenches.

So it is bewildering as to why a governor disrespects these folks. Our rank and file teachers are hardly “political” in the Albany sense of the word. They are good people, so when politicians like Cuomo come along and single out the few bad teachers, claiming they are representative of the tens of thousands of good teachers, they just don’t get it. They are hurt. They see the governor as a bully who is unfairly threatening them with a myriad of tests and outside observers. They fear that he is doing an end run around the tenure that has protected them from arbitrary and capricious school board members who all too often would just love to fire at will. His contention that failing schools are the result of failing teachers is nothing short of nonsense and any right thinking American who owes everything to the wonderful people who brought us along knows it. Sure, there are a few bad teachers. There are a whole lot of bad politicians. My bet is that the bad politicians outnumber the bad teachers.

He has a few points but he is off the wall on things like charter schools, clear attempts at union busting, and vouchers that would allow the state to indirectly pay for religious education. These are terrible ideas.

The conservative press, and we know who they are, won’t let up. They keep egging the governor on to do his damage. For generations, New Yorkers have adhered to the principle that if your kid goes to public school the state will pay for it but that if he wants to go to a religious or other private school, that’s on him and his parents. Cuomo has already dropped some of his worst ideas on education from the state’s budget. We are told that he may resurrect them in bills that will be traded with legislators for other things that they may want. Fair enough, but at least for now the governor’s attack on teachers and education has slowed down. Congratulations to Speaker Heastie and his Assembly members for putting a stop to the worst of them.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/31/15

Solving the world’s energy crisis one radio at a time

March 30, 2015

I was talking to Murray, the world’s cutest and brightest dog. As you know, he was taught to speak English early on. It’s amazing. The dog knows so much that I’ve been trying to convince Joe Donahue to let him have my spot on the first hour of “The Roundtable” every once in a while.

There are, however, many things about which the little Westie and I disagree. For example, he is always pestering me about world affairs. He is far more enamored with Bibi Netanyahu than I am. The little dog is deeply suspicious of the Arab leadership. He says they want their own country and he doesn’t trust them.

“Look, Pops,” he recently said with his pink tongue hanging out. “I’ll bet you anything that once the Palestinians get their own state, they’ll continue to try to push Israel into the sea.”

I told him that I didn’t think we had any choice — Netanyahu had been rude to the President of the United States and had overplayed his role and actually threatened Israel’s security by misjudging the President’s resolve. To that, the little dog looked up at me and said, “You know, Pops, every time I hear you say that stuff on the radio I am deeply disappointed.”

That’s when I knew that the real culprit was my partner/wife/co-parent/lover, Roselle. She was responsible for Murray’s continuing disagreement with me. You see Roselle has a theory that the radio must be left on continually when she is out of the house. I have said to her, time and again, that we are wasting electricity and that if everyone left their radios on to keep their dogs company the drain on the nation’s energy could prove catastrophic. But Roselle really is much smarter than I am; she takes no guff.

“Look, Alan,” she said. “This is not just any dog. This is Murray who can read and write English. In fact you’re the one who sent him to the Literacy Network of South Berkshire to learn to read and write. Just because he can out think and out talk you doesn’t mean that we should keep him from his major source of news and information. What do you want to do, turn him into one of those people who gets no news at all? I think that Murray ought to run for Selectman. He’s really much smarter than a few of the people who are running.”

But the lovely Roselle was hardly through with me. In fact, she was just getting warmed up. Of course, Murray was sitting next to her in her big green recliner. The little dog had a tremendous grin on his face that he reserves for those times when I am really in trouble. Roselle then uttered the Name That Shall Not Be Used (my mom’s orders). She started to call me “Al.” She knows how much I hate that but she was really annoyed.

“Listen, Al,” she said. “I can’t even begin to tell you how many people leave the radio station on all day long. Their pets can’t even speak English but their humans just want them to have some company. Don’t talk to me about how much it costs. This country spends billions on its pet industry and most of it is on stuff that the dogs play with for a moment and then it lands in the corner and collects dust. So a few pennies for a educated dog population is nothing.”

Roselle told me she even knows someone who leaves the radio station on for her parrots. She says that when the family comes home from school and work all the parrots can say, over and over again is “1-800-323-9262.” So then she said, “I know someone who leaves their radio on for her five cats.” “CATS,” I screamed. “Now you’ve gone too far.”

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 3/28/15

Ethics games

March 24, 2015

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie stood up at a recent press conference and announced a two-way deal on ethics reform in Albany. Notably absent from the press conference was Dean Skelos, the head man in the Republican-dominated Senate and the “third man in the room” without whom almost nothing gets done in Albany. Since Heastie and Cuomo agreed on the governor’s five-point ethics program, it might mean something, or it might mean nothing. Every seasoned Albany hand knows full well that Mario Cuomo and his son Andrew have been playing a game for years known as “The mean old Republicans won’t let me have my way” strategy. Cuomo wants and needs the Republicans in power so that he can be the good guy and they can be the heavies.

When he ran for governor, Cuomo told the voters that he would veto any reapportionment bill that would allow the legislative majorities to draw their own districts; the theory being that they would draw districts in which they had the best chance of winning. The minute he got into office, he broke his campaign pledge. The Senate Republicans did what came naturally and drew districts in which they couldn’t lose. That put them in power. Then the next time out, Cuomo pledged to get the Democrats into the majority in the state Senate but he “failed.” So it seems clear to me that he wants the Republicans to control the Senate. Then, too, there was that Moreland Act Commission that was abruptly canceled just as they were getting somewhere. That didn’t help his credibility problem.

Now, he stands up with the Assembly speaker and they announce this grand deal on ethics, but the Republican Senate is not on board. Do I really think that Speaker Heastie wants an ethics package? No, I don’t. But if the deal was to come up with something, give Cuomo his bragging rights and at the same time make sure that there would be limited ethics reform, well, maybe. Let’s remember that Cuomo made a string of promises about this that have not exactly worked out. His revised, revised, ethics commission is not known for its effectiveness and Cuomo knew that people were beginning to have their doubts. So he came up with his five-point program, the most important part of which was absolute disclosure about how much money was being made on the outside by legislators, including lawyers and real estate agents. The Senate Republicans, many of whom are quite well heeled, don’t want to do that. I don’t blame them. If I were them, I wouldn’t want to do it either. Luckily, I’m not one of them.

Since some legislators have been reporting that they were in Albany when they were not and claiming the per diem that is given when they are at work, the Cuomo-Heastie team came up with a solution. Members would have to put a card into a machine proving that they were actually where they said they were. Of course, somebody else could punch the clock for them but hey, it’s something. That is one change that we will see happening so that Cuomo and Heastie can say, “See what we did, even without the mean old Republicans?” For their part, the Republicans are insisting that any deal on disclosure include wives and live-in girlfriends like the governor’s housemate, Sandra Lee. This is already being called “Sandra’s Law.”

By no means is ethics reform in Albany a done deal, but more of the same old, same old stuff. Cuomo insists he won’t compromise on his principles, but we have heard that song before. His problem now is that fewer and fewer people believe him and his polling numbers are going down. Maybe he thinks that any ethics reform will confirm his sincerity. Nope, this time he really has to produce.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/24/15

Small-town elected service is a thankless task

March 23, 2015

Elections are won or lost in a number of different ways. Sometimes those who have the most money to invest in campaigns win. Sometimes the most attractive or charismatic person wins. Sometimes people win because no one else wants the angst of running for office.

I’ve only run for political office once in my adult life and that was in the tiny little town of Alford. It was a long time ago but I learned a powerful lesson and that is that town government is complicated and tedious, and often thankless.

I did that job for three long years. The man who encouraged me to run was the late Gus “Boss” Berkel, a political genius of sorts. He assured me that I could beat a member of the old guard and he told me how to do it. We would deliver a letter to everyone’s doorstep and make the case.

As a little Jewish professor from New York I had my doubts about the chances of winning but the Boss was so sure of me I went for it and, incredibly, was elected. I had also served on a number of town committees in which people wanting stuff came before boards, asked and were told “no,” and then blew their gaskets.

As a selectman, my greatest trials occurred when the Boss took off for Florida for several months. A wonderful man who worked in Pittsfield was often absent as well, leaving me the only schnook sitting up there. It turns out that there were some very serious issues we had to resolve and didn’t.

One was the great hydroponic “pickle factory” caper. Go up Green River Road from Great Barrington, look to your right and there it stands, a model of foolery and wasted taxpayer dollars. I had to go to court on that one and was admonished by the judge for something or other and once again, the legal system failed. But that’s a whole other story.

All of this is meant to demonstrate that you have to have your own good reasons for doing these jobs. When I was asked to do it again, I didn’t hesitate to pass. Later I served as town moderator and I didn’t do too well in that spot, either. People in the audience had to remind me where we were in the town warrant. Luckily for the people of Alford, they got better people to serve in these various capacities.

People run for these offices for a number of reasons. The best motivation is plain old service to the community. Bless those people who do it year in and out. The worst reason is what my brother has always referred to as “blood sport.”

There are some unhappy people out there who are always looking for trouble. They convert their hatred into philosophical rationales. They rant and they rave. If they hate paying taxes, they go to great lengths to tell you that your school system is over-spending. They may offer other ways to get it done, but that won’t happen because it’s just too hard.

Some (but not all) of them are really troubled. You pretty well know that because everyone to whom you mention their names will tell you straight out, “That guy is nuts.” But we don’t have to worry about these folks, do we? Yes, as a matter of fact, we do.

If you read the beginning of this piece you will see how hard it is to serve in office. You can’t go on vacation. You have to work hard, often several days a week. Deb Phillips, who worked incredibly hard for the town of Great Barrington as selectwoman just said no more because she just couldn’t give enough time to both her business and the town. Of course, if no one else wants to run some of the aforementioned characters will take out papers and run. That’s the dilemma and we all know it.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 3/21/15

A not so grand bargain?

March 17, 2015

It is crucial for any citizen who wants to understand state government to know about the seminal case, Silver versus Pataki. This case taught us the principle that the governor can put any policy demands into the budget and the Legislature can’t take them out. Because of that case, governors of New York grew to have power seldom seen in any other state.

Just look at the latest budget in which Andrew Cuomo has been both mischievous and heroic. His terrible proposal to allow for tax breaks for parochial and private schools is there. He should be ashamed of that. But also in the proposed document is Cuomo’s first rate list of reforms to the state’s ethics laws.

His list goes on and on but just for starters, he wants to know exactly how much money every legislator earns on the outside. Since we have seen the proof as yet another legislator is hauled away to the hoosegow and we understand the nature of those who steal simply because they can, Cuomo’s efforts are indeed heroic.

In the end, though, in order to have an on-time budget there will be a grand bargain. Much of what the governor has demanded in his budget will be mitigated and he will submit a revised budget. The question on ethics, for example, is whether he will give away the store. I hope he doesn’t but I suspect he will. Poor Andrew is now so damaged from his major screw up in disbanding his corruption fighting Moreland Act Commission and his refusal to keep his campaign promise on apportionment (not allowing the legislators to draw their own districts), cynics like me expect that when the dust settles, he will have given in on the important issues that govern ethics. No one should really be surprised if he follows suit and sells out on his announced ethics reform platform and gives in to the greedy legislators who have anointed Speaker Carl Heastie to do their dirty work for them.

New Yorkers really know nothing about their state government. When pressed, they may mutter something easy like, “They’re all crooks” (not true) but the media has made such a circus over late budgets that when we get one on time, it is seen as much more important than what’s actually in the document. None of this is meant to discount the idea that late budgets cost us all big time and really affect the state’s school districts which have to know how much money they will have to spend.

The problem for Andrew is that his father was plagued by late budgets. Since Andrew was by his father’s side to see all the pain that this caused, he is determined not to let it happen on his watch. But now the proof is in the pudding. Does he really want all the so-called reforms he has asked for or is this just show and tell? In other words, is it all a big game? In the past Andrew has folded at the crucial moment, arguing that he had to. This time around, people should hold his feet to the fire and if he does the same old, same old, they should say to the ventriloquist, “We saw your lips move.”

You have to ask yourself whether these clowns understand that they are really not doing themselves any good. They are all ripping off the system for huge payoffs in the form of campaign gifts and, in some cases, outrageous legal bribes in the form of outside income.

A friend of the governor asked me recently how come I keep writing this again and again. The answer, said the great Pete Seeger, is that “…repetition is the height of pedagogy.” Maybe if I say it often enough, someone will wake up and act.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/17/15


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