NY politics

State 'mandates' are like cockroaches: hard to kill

First published in Newsday.

Newsday's editorial board frequently meets with people in public life: school superintendents, state and local elected officials, law-enforcement agents. And one question that comes up all the time is how to reduce the cost of public services.

It was an issue back when the only urgency was New York's position as No.1 or No.2 in the nation with the highest combined state and local tax burden - a "distinction" New York trades from year to year with New Jersey. Now, as the Great Recession has tightened the screws on public budgets everywhere, the question is more pointed: Which will it be, raise taxes or cut services?

Elected officials, candidates and community leaders usually don't want to choose between these unpopular alternatives. Sometimes they try a dodge: "Cut waste, fraud and abuse!" Hard to argue with that. No one ever campaigns for more inefficiency, dishonesty and corruption.

The other dodge - or at least that's how I thought of it until recently - was, "Cut unfunded mandates!"

"Mandates" come up often as the culprit forcing unnecessary costs on local governments and agencies - but ask for an example, and people have trouble responding. It's not that the problem doesn't exist; it's that it's so pervasive, and it's hard to know where to begin.

Mandates were once well-meaning state rules for how municipalities and school districts should do business. Now, the rules have hardened in concrete. They're bureaucracy; they're micromanagement. And, as of December, they're available in 40 pages of highly descriptive detail - 238 separate mandates - that a task force spent nearly a year compiling for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The report from the 2011 Mandate Relief Redesign Team lists burdensome rules and paperwork like a bundle of hard knots. Permit local governments to make discretionary purchases on public works projects up to $50,000, instead of $35,000. Reduce time-consuming requirements surrounding foster care reports, while still making them useful to the courts. Allow nursing homes to keep some records electronically.

Cuomo has highlighted mandate relief in two subsequent State of the State speeches - in 2011 and again early this month. In fact, he said pretty much the same thing both times: We need to fix the problem. He had to repeat himself because, while the redesign team did come up with a long list of mandates, it got very little relief accomplished.

Why? Well, first, the team of 27 - representing schools, municipalities, the State Legislature, business and civic organizations - had to agree on which mandates to relieve. The members came up with just $410 million worth - a small drop in a $132.5-billion state budget sea. Of that, the legislature wiped out just 22 mandates - for an estimated statewide savings this year of $125 million. State agencies can save another $40 million by rewriting regulations.

Mandate relief was supposed to ride a white horse to rescue municipalities and school districts from the tough new 2 percent cap on property tax growth they must begin living with this year; $165 million won't do it.

Rather than admitting defeat, the governor and State Legislature formed a Mandate Relief Council - 11 members, including state bureaucrats and legislators - to consider the other 216 mandates. Cause for optimism is slight.

Former Gov. David A. Paterson used to float an idea that all state rules should expire at a certain date unless legislators voted to keep them. That's drastic, but it may be New York's only real hope of undoing the knotty bureaucracy that yokes this tax burden to citizens' shoulders.

Readers respond: Students need layoff facts

Regarding the column by Anne Michaud, "Keep school budget talk out of the classroom" [Opinion, Dec. 8], I agree that children need to feel secure in school. Their focus needs to be on learning. A major part of that learning should, in my opinion, be relating knowledge to reality. What good are the three Rs if we don't see the issues that are facing us daily?

We live in a society that has a small percentage of people voting in general and school elections. This lack of response leads to lack of control over the direction our country takes and sometimes even to corruption in government.

It is imperative that our children learn to be good citizens and participate in our democracy. If this means bringing up budget concerns to students old enough to understand, then they should be mentioned. An open discussion talking about the whole process and not focusing just on layoffs, would be in order. This hopefully would bring students to begin thinking about mundane issues that our society faces on a daily basis. Opening their young minds would undoubtedly lead to a more involved electorate later on.

Steve Tuck, Huntington

If a teacher is asked a question by a student, shouldn't it be answered? I find it amusing that a person who contributes to Newsday's Opinion pages wants to now control the things we say in class. Newspaper columnists get their forum without any input from readers.

I find all the harsh rhetoric printed in the last several years about teachers "divisive, angry and unhealthy" as well. When class sizes are larger and programs are cut, remember the true culprits: the financial institutions and oil companies whose employees and owners still get record bonuses each year -- on average, more than teachers make in a year.

Rich Weeks, Middle Island

I believe that Anne Michaud completely missed the point. School budget talks allow Social Studies teachers to discuss relevant and current issues facing our communities. This issue lends itself to great discussions of limited resources, the role of the citizen in a democracy, economic choices and a whole host of other topics. This is what we call a teachable moment.

We do our students a great disservice when we try to shelter them from what is happening in the news.

Kathleen Stanley, Massapequa Park Editor's note: The writer is a high school Social Studies teacher.

As a teacher in a public high school, I feel that I need to explain why teachers sometimes discuss rules governing teacher layoffs (last in, first out) with their students. A lot of students don't understand the difference between being laid off and being fired. They just assume that when someone is excessed because of budgetary reasons, that person has been fired for cause.

I feel it is important to explain to students how tenure and seniority work. It's bad enough when colleagues are let go. I'm certainly not going to let their reputations be tarnished with misinformation.

The column is right in this sense, that younger children should not be frightened by teachers into thinking Mom and Dad hold the key to a teacher's survival, and children should therefore convince their parents to vote for the budget. It's a cheap ploy.

However, I also think that when students come to school and tell me their parents say I make too much money and have it really easy, that I should be allowed to defend my profession. I don't think it's inappropriate to discuss the realities with older students, some of whom will be able to participate in the upcoming budget votes.

Jeffrey A. Stotsky, Forest Hills

Keep school budget talk out of the classroom

First published in Newsday.

Recently, I was driving my seventh-grader to one of her many events, when she began explaining LIFO to me. She told me that the youngest teachers were usually the ones to lose their jobs when there are budget cuts: "last in, first out."

I don't consider this information a seventh-grader should be thinking about - except perhaps when learning labor history in the classroom. She said that her teachers, and others, have been talking about the politics of school budgets.

It may seem a little soon, given that budgets won't be up for a public vote until May. But people are thinking ahead since this time around will be different. New York schools will be budgeting to stay under the 2 percent property tax cap passed earlier this year.

This week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo negotiated a deal to restructure state income tax rates so that New York will be able to afford a promised 4 percent increase in state aid to schools next year. I hope that deal takes some of the tension out of the classroom, because I don't think school budget cuts are a proper topic for students.

I first heard such concerns from my daughter when she was in fourth grade and came home to report that her teacher might lose her job if the school budget didn't pass. The message to parents was that we should get out and vote "yes." It was the emotional equivalent of dangling a baby over a banister.

I sent an email to another teacher, who was the supervisor of my daughter's program, and said I didn't think they should be talking in class about teacher layoffs. First, it's scary for kids to think that the teacher could suddenly be gone. There's an emotional attachment between student and teacher.

It's also frightening for kids to contemplate how their teacher might be harmed by job loss. Last, it's unfair to imply that Mommy and Daddy hold the only key - the ballot box - to saving Teacher's job.

Could it be that if the school board had negotiated a more modest teachers contract that it could afford to pay more teachers year after year? Of course. Could it be that if administrators found savings - like condsolidating their ranks or settling for less luxurious compensation packages - that the system could afford to lay off fewer teachers? Right again.

But I didn't say that when I emailed my daughter's school. I simply said that I felt the financial conversation was best kept among adults, and that students might be frightened by layoff talk.

When teachers raise district budget issues in class, it feels like divorcing parents who are pointing blaming fingers at each other. It's divisive, angry and unhealthy. I feel the same way about teachers refusing to stay for after-school help or wearing black to school to protest that they're working without a contract. These "conversations" should occur among adults. Kids should be able to focus on adaptive immunity and rational integers and the branches of government without being distracted by budget politics.

Teachers surely want to be treated like professionals - and I've met far, far more good teachers than the occasional inconsiderate one. But a few loose comments - such as how my daughter learned about LIFO - can poison the atmosphere.

With the tax cap in effect, the conversation about how to pay for public education is going to become tenser in coming years. We can figure it out, but let's do it in a room where only the grown-ups are allowed.

Are women in politics more trustworthy?

First published in NewsdayAnother pair of elected officials indicted in Albany. For New Yorkers, this registers as something less than earth-rocking. Even as federal prosecutors allege "a broad-based bribery racket" involving state legislators -- State Sen. Carl Kruger and Assemb. William Boyland Jr., two Brooklyn Democrats -- our indignation is lukewarm.

We're almost accustomed to corruption. After all, the count is now at 19 state legislators removed or resigned amid scandal since 2000 -- Sens. Hiram Monserrate (D-Queens) and Pedro Espada (D-Bronx), Assemb. Tony Seminerio (D-Queens), Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer). All gone.

Here's another thing these recent headliners have in common: They're all men. And that makes some people wonder: Are women in public office more honest?

That's certainly the perception and is often the case, says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. She doesn't know of any count of corruption by gender. But her organization did ask the new batch of state legislators after the last election what had been their primary reason for running. Nationwide, the top motivation for women, chosen by 36 percent, was "concern for one or more specific policy issues." The men's top reason (29 percent), was "a long-standing desire to be involved in politics." That makes Walsh think ego may play a role in corruption: "You can't attribute it all to that, but maybe that's part of it."

But it's worth asking if men really are getting into trouble more often. It's true that we hear about them more -- but then again, they hold the majority of elective offices. Nationwide, women make up just 16 percent of elected officials at the federal level, and 24 percent of state offices. The New York State Legislature tracks with the national figure, roughly, at 22 percent women. And in fact, of those 19 New Yorkers who left the Assembly or Senate in the past 11 years under a cloud of wrongdoing, three were women -- about 16 percent.

"It's true in the public perception that women are more honest," says Christopher Berry, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "But that 16 percent is not really out of step with their proportions."

In 2008, Assemb. Diane Gordon, a Brooklyn Democrat, went to prison for bribery after asking a developer to build her a $500,000 house. Assemb. Gloria Davis, a Bronx Democrat, resigned in 2003 after a bribery conviction. Former state Sen. Ada Smith (D-Brooklyn) was found guilty of harassment in 2006 for throwing a hot cup of coffee at an assistant. She ran again anyway but lost.

Other cultures have also thought about gender differences among elected leaders. India was concerned about its low number of women in public office, and in 1993 passed a rule that one-third of the 265,000 governing village councils must be chaired by women. More than a million women have since been elected to these panchayats, which oversee public services and resolve disputes ranging from marital issues to arguments over property.

One study, by Esther Duflo, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that the panchayats led by women were slightly less susceptible to corruption. Villagers, on average, were 1.6 percentage points less likely to try to bribe them -- a difference so small as to be meaningless.

As more American women enter public life and attain higher elected positions, the incidence of bribe-taking and power abuse will probably even out between genders. Greed, vanity and the path of least resistance are human frailties, not gender-linked traits.

Equal, in this case, might not be better -- but it may be inevitable.

Public schools lack independence to analyze cost-savings

First published in Newsday

Lately, everyone seems to be offering ideas about how to save money in the public schools. People familiar with business or even household budgets look at the problem and want to apply a little common sense. One of the most popular suggestions: Cut the number of superintendents down to one each for Nassau and Suffolk counties, for a potential savings of more than $25 million.

That may sound like a lot, but it would amount to just one-third of 1 percent of the $7.5 billion that Long Island's 124 school districts spend each year. Even so, it's clear that residents are ready for some sign of good-faith reductions from schools.

Decreasing the number of superintendents gained wattage last week as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo addressed crowds around the state and talked about how much these school leaders are paid. He says that 40 percent make $200,000 or more.

Teachers' raises, "steps" (built-in longevity raises) and credits for coursework - which add up to increases of about 6 percent a year - also have Long Islanders reaching for their budget shears. So do the cadres of assistant superintendents, directors, assistant directors, principals, assistant principals - and on and on.

Per-pupil costs reach $23,000 in some Long Island districts, more than double the national average of $10,259. So, yes, Long Island's school costs appear fat. That's why it's surprising that study groups charged with finding savings always come up with so little.

Take the years-long initiative by Nassau County school districts to consolidate non-classroom operations. Albany gave the districts a $1-million grant to figure out how to save money, in part by jointly bidding contracts. The study group looked at student busing, school inspections and cell-phone use. It spent half its grant money - and came up with a mere $760,000 in potential economies. Early estimates were $5 million in savings a year. What a disappointment.

Then there's the Suffolk County study that was supposed to save money through pooled health insurance. A consultant concluded that the reduction would amount to two-tenths of 1 percent of current costs. That useless exercise was funded by a $45,000 state grant.

These studies are plainly approaching the question the wrong way. They seem to eliminate from the outset any possibility that would cause a friend or ally to forfeit cash. For example, the Nassau County group declined to consider using the county attorney's office for legal work, preferring instead to continue paying outside lawyers "experienced" in school law. As if the county attorney couldn't gain adequate experience within a short time.

People inside the school community, who are invariably leading these studies, just aren't independent enough to ask the hard questions. But outsiders are rarely invited in. Instead, those outside the school corridors are essentially told: You don't understand the requirements and pressures on schools. And outsiders are never trusted with essential information to make smart decisions. If you've ever tried to read a school budget, you know what I mean.

We need some sort of hybrid, an independent study group with insider knowledge, like the 2006 state Berger Commission on hospital closings. Budgets are tight. It would be wonderful to find the $1.5 billion in school savings that Gov. Cuomo has targeted without sacrificing music or art, accelerated programs or special education resources, late buses or athletic programs. Maybe that's impossible. Anyone with a novel approach, please drop me an e-mail. This problem needs all the brainpower Long Islanders can bring to bear.

NY needs to cut special ed spending

Originally published in Newsday

Two years ago this month, the Suozzi Commission came out with a startling report. Charged with finding a way to lower property taxes, the group - formally named the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief - turned sharply off course to detail the escalating cost of special education.

For more than a year, the commission looked for fundamental reasons why New York's property taxes are so high. It asked public school officials who, one after another, pointed to special education.

So, the commission assigned a task force to examine special ed. It found that the state has 204 "mandates" beyond federal rules that make our special education system the most expensive in the country. On average, New York schools spend $9,494 per pupil in regular classrooms, and a prodigious $23,898 for each special education student.

Our state is rightly proud of its generous and progressive history on education. But you have to wonder, as a new administration takes over in Albany next month with a $9-billion deficit chained to its ankle, whether it's time to take another look at the Suozzi Commission's findings. After all, the state Council of School Superintendents called them "the most thorough independent review of New York's special education policies in the more than 30 years since the current basic structure was put into place" - yet they've essentially been ignored.

One problem with special ed is that too many students qualify. Don't assume that these programs serve only those students diagnosed with a severe mental or physical challenge. In fact, more than half the students in special ed simply need extra help in reading or math, speech therapy or other support.

Schools receive extra resources for special ed students, so they have an incentive to label marginal students as disabled. But what if not all of them are really disabled? Not only would that be a waste of money, it would harm the truly disabled students by overburdening the resources meant to serve them.

Also, shifting non-disabled students into special education can stigmatize them and sidesteps problems, like failing schools, that should be addressed head-on.

Once kids are in special ed, schools must meet minimum requirements for them, like drafting an individualized education program every year. Students in speech therapy had to attend at least two sessions a week - no matter what their needs were - until the Board of Regents relaxed that rule last month.

Such regulations may sound trifling, until you consider there are 204 of them, on top of a tome of federal rules.

School officials are also required to hold legal hearings, at an average cost of $75,000, if a parent questions a student's placement. (Parents pay some of the cost.) In the 2007-08 school year, 6,157 hearings were requested. A case for one child on Long Island cost $300,000.

Parents can sue to have the school district pay for private school tuition - as much as $25,000 a year or more - and for bus service within 50 miles of a child's home. In theory, a Mineola student could qualify for door-to-door service to a school in Greenwich, Conn. - although it defies logic that a parent would want that.

Last month, New York's Regents did away with a few of the 204 mandates, but nothing that will cut costs. What's needed is a study of results: which strategies work best to move students on to college or the workforce. Schools should know what leads to success.

Parent advocates for students with disabilities correctly argue that early intervention - say, remedial reading in lower grades - prevents problems later on. And no one wants a child to struggle needlessly. But the spending gap is outrageous. It's time to find a middle ground.

Small groups of 'ultra-motivated activists' deciding elections?

New York Times political writer Matt Bai wrote out some new laws of politics last week, following the Tuesday electoral primaries that caused such discomfort for the established parties in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arizona. One of his observations is

...when fewer people bother to engage in party politics, it takes a smaller group of ultra-motivated activists to overturn the traditional order of things.

The connection he does not make is that this has been a rule of New York politics for many years. It's something that the two major parties count on to get their people elected to office: apathy among the mass of voters. Consider another fact published in the May issue of Harper's Magazine. In a very tough indictment of the State Legislature, "The Albany Handshake," writer Christopher Ketcham notes that "one-third of all current New York State legislators took office in special elections for which voter turnout as low as 2 or 3 percent was typical."

When practically no one votes, it's easier to load up the ballots with a get-out-the-vote effort designed to favor one candidate. I've watched this happen, as elected officials resign part-way through their terms in order to force a special election to fill their seats. But even I was surprised that a full third of the legislature had won seats that way.

Of course, the two parties are not the only ones who can play that game. In recent years, unions have called on loyal members to turn out in numbers, and none so successfully as the coalition of unions known as the Working Families Party. Although, the New York State United Teachers and the United Federation of Teachers certainly present another strong force, especially to the extent that they can reach out to parent-teacher groups to spread the activism beyond their members to a more general voting public. E-mail has been a wonderful tool for these organizations.

I dislike the manipulation that's involved in loading up the ballot with a particular group of voters, because it cynically counts on the majority to care not at all. But I wonder if appealing to our passionate interests as voters is such a bad thing. I vote as a parent, and maybe as a worker who wants paid family leave, if I am a Working Families Party ally. But for fewer of us now, the labels Democrat and Republican stir much loyalty at all.

Poll: Paterson should stay on

It's official: Even with all the hijinks issuing from the Governor's Mansion, 68 percent of registered voters in New York want Gov. David Paterson to fill out his term, which lasts through the end of this year. I think this poll result speaks to how jaded we New Yorkers are. The Gray Lady and the city tabloids can harumph all they want about recent allegations -- that the governor covered up for a girlfriend-beating aide, that he asked the Yankees for free tickets to the World Series, that he steered a big state contract into the arms of his political supporters. This is all kid stuff for New Yorkers.

We want to see him deal with a really big job: closing a deal on a state budget that's $9 billion in the red.

A smarter strategy on gay marriage

Prominent gay activist Ethan Geto told New York magazine that if the NY Senate Democrats don't bring same-sex marriage to a vote, there will be "hell to pay. The gay community is going to walk away en masse." Of course, having them walk away one-by-one is what the Senate is trying to prevent by stalling a vote. That is, if senators are forced to vote, they will put themselves on the record, and gay activists will divide them into two groups for the fall 2010 elections. Supporters will receive cash donations -- and the opponents, who knows? Activist organization Empire State Pride Agenda has not revealed its strategies to target opponents next year -- at least not in public.

Few senators will even say where they stand on gay marriage, for fear of putting themselves in the sights of one side or the other. The Catholic Church holds a lot of power on Long Island. ESPA, Geto and others want a floor vote in the Senate, so they can count their friends. That's ironic, isn't it? Gay advocates trying to "out" New York's elected officials.

Rather than taking a vote of conscience, Senate Democrats would apparently prefer to protect their jobs. Talk about unconscionable. People in public life should be prepared to say what they believe.

Geto's statement today ups the ante by threatening to work against the entire Democratic caucus if they don't hold a vote -- or maybe just the leadership that prevents the vote from coming to the floor. It's a potentially successful new tactic. Will it work? Stay tuned.

'Gang of Three' split over same-sex marriage

People who are counting heads in the New York State Senate say that a vote to legalize same-sex marriage will be very close -- if the bill makes it to the floor at all. The issue was nearly considered last spring, just before the Senate Republican coup knocked all agendas off the table. Now, advocates led by the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) are prepping for a Nov. 10 special session of the legislature to try again. As I've said before, the vote could fill an important political need for Gov. David Paterson and anyone who wants to see him step aside in 2010, such as Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

ESPA won't say who among the state senators it is counting on its side. But two sources say that troubled Sen. Hiram Monserrate's name is in ESPA's "yes" column.

Monserrate -- a member of the senate's so-called "Gang of Three" rogue members -- hasn't said much publicly since a Queens judge concluded he was guilty of a violent misdemeanor assault on his girlfriend, and political folks began calling for his ouster. One of the people who rushed to Monserrate's rescue is Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., a minister who is practically a single-issue voter on the subject of same-sex marriage. He based his support for former Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith on a reported promise Smith made to block a marriage bill from coming to the senate floor.

The recent dynamics would appear to at least shift Monserrate's vote to the questionable column. Joshua Meltzer, an ESPA spokesman, says that although he can't talk about the senator's position, he would point to Sen. Pedro Espada as another 'Gang' member who has gone his own way to co-sponsor the marriage bill in the senate.

But I'm predicting that Monserrate will vote with Diaz in the end. With a special senate committee considering his fate, Monserrate is going to need every friend he can get on the inside.