Saturday, March 20, 2010

Beware of the Wise Men, New York by Rory Lancman -- Times Union - Albany NY

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There is much to commend in Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch's recently released plan to address New York's long-term fiscal problems, including its call to change the start of the state's fiscal year from April 1 to July 1, apply Generally Accepted Accounting Principles to the state's budgeting, require multi-year financial planning and require quarterly certification that the state budget is on track, with mandatory adjustments if it is not.But the proposal to turn over this last critically important responsibility to an unelected panel of "highly respected private citizens" (the plan's phrase, not mine), potentially triggering a governor's power to unilaterally impose across the board budget cuts, is misguided. It is emblematic of a certain world view that is simultaneously idealistic and cynical, but either way, undemocratic.

The power to gauge whether the budget is on a five-year track is no trifling thing. It is not a simple question of mathematics. It involves substantial judgment calls about the efficacy of revenue enhancements and cost-saving measures. These are regularly some of the most hotly contested issues in government.

To rip just a few such questions from recent headlines: Will a slight increase in the personal income tax for people making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year raise what its supporters hope? Or far less, because it will drive wealthy New Yorkers to leave the state?

Will downsizing prisons save what supporters claim, or cost the state more money in the long run?

Is the governor's projected deficit in next year's budget correct, or understated by as much as a billion dollars?

These "calculations" are as much based on the values and judgment of the individuals doing the calculating as on any mathematical or accounting formula.

The idealism behind the faith in such "panels of wise men" (and women) is obvious. Removed from the grind of political calculation, and accomplished in their respective fields of business and finance (and perhaps past government service), they are free to do what is right for right's sake.

The cynicism is obvious as well. The wise men can provide cover by delivering the dreadful news that elected officials are too afraid to deliver. When the hard decisions are made, "The wise men made us do it," will be the excuse.

But our experience with other such panels of wise men should give us pause. They have had a bad run of late. Politics is rarely really removed from a panel's deliberations, and appointees as often as not either gleefully exceed the scope of their mandate or slavishly follow the directives of their appointing master.

The panel of three wise men given the task of vetting state comptroller candidates for the Legislature's consideration in 2007 following the resignation of the previous comptroller sat mute for hours upon hours of hearings, and then made the political decision to exclude obviously well-qualified candidates who happened to be legislators.

The panel of wise minds known as the Commission on Judicial Nomination took it upon themselves to exceed their mandate to examine whether candidates for chief judge were well qualified, and instead excluded a plainly well qualified Court of Appeals judge because of extraneous considerations that have yet to be fully explained.

Similar results can be seen with other recent panels and commissions. For example, the New York City Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission was charged by the Legislature with studying congestion in the city. Ultimately, the members who already supported the mayor's congestion price proposal when they were appointed just rubber-stamped his plan along "party lines."

For these reasons, it would be far better to require the Legislature itself or the comptroller to affirmatively certify compliance with a five-year financial plan on a quarterly or semiannual basis, after public hearings on the matter. Ultimately, they answer to the public for their decisions, and their judgment -- good or bad -- is rooted in the authority and legitimacy which only they possess as elected representatives of the people.

In our constitutional order, there is no room for panels of enlightened wise beings to which we can turn over our government to save us from ourselves.

First published in print on Page 1: Friday, March 19, 2010

Assemblyman Rory Lancman, a Democrat, represents the 25th District in Queens.