Tuesday, June 09, 2009

America's own banana republic

"Doesn't anyone here know how to play this game?" -Casey Stengel

During the Rod Blagojevich scandal, the state of Illinois got a national black eye for naked corruption. But New York legislators seems hell bent on putting Illinois (and especially themselves) to shame. Apparently not content with the moniker Most Dysfunctional Legislature in the Nation, they've decided this week to set the bar even lower.

Following the last election, Democrats had a narrow 32-30 majority in the state Senate, made narrower due to the vacancy of the lieutenant governor's position. Republicans, who'd been in power for over 69 of the previous 70 years, naturally weren't too happy. So they decided to engineer a coup, executed yesterday, by picking off two disaffected Democrats... both of whom are ethically challenged even by Albany's pathetic standards.

The result was a farce. Nay, a farce worthy of a banana republic.

The Republicans (with the two Democrats) apparently retook power and did so trumpeting rules changes that would democratize the chamber. Essentially, the Senate GOP wanted to overturn a rigged system that it spent the last several decades erecting, only to suffer by them when the Democrats took power and didn't eradicate them quickly enough for Republican taste.

But who was the GOP 'reform' agenda dependent upon? One Democrat, Hiram Monserrate, has been indicted for allegedly slashing his girlfriend in the face with a piece of broken glass. The other, Pedro Espada, has been heavily fined for violating election law and dilly-dallied in actually paying the fine.

Both dissidents claim they are unhappy with the incompetent former (?) Democratic majority leader Malcolm Smith. They claim disorganization and failure of the Democrats to implement their reform agenda and were probably right in their assessment, even though no one really quite believes that as their motive. They claim that the disorganization prevented them (hold hand over heart) from doing the people's business.

Interesting that they would launch their coup at the most disruptive time possible to (hold hand over heart) doing the people's business: the last week and a half of the legislative session.

I'm sure Espada's motives are purely noble and have nothing to do with the fact that he was made Senate president nor with the fact that he was reportedly pissed off that he couldn't get pork for some groups in his district, because it could not be confirmed that the groups were legitimate non-profits. The New York Times report makes the setup look extremely fishy.

Even more absurd, the coup planning was aided and abetted by former New York billionaire (it's the New York part that's former, not the billionaire part) Tom Golisano who fled to Florida after a PR campaign whining about his personal income taxes. Though Golisano managed to finagle a plum job for one of his close advisors in the newly-Republican chamber. Not sure how other New Yorkers feel about a Floridian, especially one who explicitly gave New York the finger, meddling in their state politics but I'm not too thrilled.

If that's not absurd enough, here's the kicker. Remember Espada? The one who fined for repeatedly violating election law and who was linked to dodgy, supposed non-profits? As the new senate president, he becomes acting lieutenant governor... and will become the state's chief executive if anything happens to the current governor.

In 2004, a parliamentary delegation from Ghana visited Albany. The New York Times described it as follows:

While West Africa in general is not a place where there are functioning governments, much less governments operating in a way the public can scrutinize, the delegation found New York's budget 'opaque.' "Here we have to ask a lot of questions," [the Ghanaian parliament's finance committee chairman] said. "You just really don't know how each allocation is spent. That is quite bleak."

Even five years ago, Albany couldn't even met West African standards of transparency and legislative sanity. It's hard to believe things have gotten even worse.

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