Sunday July 1, 2012

ALBANY, N.Y. -- For about 30 state legislators, the drawbacks that include being away from home, constant criticism, little individual recognition and no raise in 13 years have become too much.

In what may be a record number, at least 25 Assembly members and at least four senators say they are retiring from the 212-seat Legislature. They have taken jobs with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s adm in istration, are running for Congress or in local government, or are just quitting.

For some, the motivation is loud and clear.

"This state is controlled by three people," bellowed Ass em bly man Joel Miller, a Pough keepsie Republican and 18-year veteran, during a floor debate. "The rest of us are really highly paid rubber stamps."

It’s not a new complaint, but it’s the core sentiment of many legislators who once ran cities, counties, businesses, law firms and classrooms before they got to Albany, where many found themselves limited.

New Yorkers who lose an incumbent will lack a representative with seniority, which matters in policy and spending decisions. For all New Yorkers, the result will be a Legislature with fewer middle-aged lawmakers still trying to balance family budgets and dealing with emerging issues seen firsthand by having children in school.

It’s an odd underrepresentation of the traditional middle class but one that concerns lawmakers. What remains is an overrepresentation of lawmakers over 65 years old and former and part-time lawyers.

"I think there was a loss of satisfaction among members," said Assemblyman John Mc Eneny, an Albany Democrat and historian who over 20 years earned bipartisan respect. "Certain incentives aren’t there anymore."

Miller and McEneny are among the retiring lawmakers.

Cuomo, citing abuses for political and personal gain that resulted in indictments against past legislators, cut member items -- money that legislators traditionally set aside for pet projects in their home districts. Former Gov. David Paterson eliminated the $200 million member items a year before to cut costs.

Lawmakers argued that they knew best how to help civic groups, schools, libraries and nonprofit health providers.

Cuomo, a Democrat, also now controls capital grants, which direct state aid often leveraged with private investment for renovations and construction of infrastructure and public buildings.

And frustration continues at the Albany tradition of negotiation of any major issue or spending by "three men in a room." Cuomo and the leaders of the Senate and Assem bly made functioning a top priority in 2012 to counter gridlock and sharp partisanship that marked sessions before Cuomo took office in 2011. They avoided some major divisive issues such as raising the minimum wage -- a priority of Democratic rank-and-file lawmakers -- and providing tax breaks to encourage hiring -- a goal of Republicans.

If productivity can be measured in the sheer number of bills agreed to by the Senate and Assembly, this year’s session wasn’t a banner year, which can add to lawmakers’ frustration. The New York Public Interest Research Group says the session produced the fewest agreed-to bills since at least 1914.

Additional reasons include:

n The first year of new districts under redistricting, done every 10 years, which changes almost every district. That forces even majority party members to build relationships with new constituents and leave others that could have been part of their political base.

n The beginning of required disclosure of outside business interests, income and clients next year. Although passed by the Legislature in the 2011 ethics bill, several lawmakers have been concerned about this unprecedented disclosure of their personal income.

n Lost leverage in crafting the state budget. Paterson had discovered a legal maneuver three years ago that empowers governors to impose their own spending plan if a budget is late.

n Thirteen years at the same $79,500-a-year base pay to spend at least six months a year, three days a week, in Albany. Most make $10,000 to $40,000 more for leadership posts like committee chairman and majority whip.

The salary for what is a part-time job compares to a $45,000-a-year average wage in New York.

Now, dozens of legislators say they are voting with their feet. They have until mid-July to commit, though. Some of the legislators who are older than 65 may run, win and retire before the session begins Jan. 1, the way former Assemblyman William F. Boyland did in 2003 to help turn his Brooklyn seat over to his son in a special election, avoiding a difficult primary.

"Gone are the days when young men and women are sent to Albany by their political clubs with the mandate of braving the ennui and cold to gain the brass ring of seniority," said former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin from the Bronx, a widely respected lawmaker turned good-government advocate.

"These departures only serve to strengthen the hand of the executive and in turn strengthens Speaker (Sheldon) Silver and the professional staff who have the knowledge, memory and keys to the kingdom," the Democrat said.

The strengthening of the governor’s office came from lawsuits won by former Gov. George Pataki. The Republican was frustrated by what he called the near absolute power of the Legislature run by lawmakers with 20 to 40 years in office with little challenge in elections. Today, younger lawmakers are reducing the average age of the Legislature, but they also reduce the institutional memory cohesiveness of the chambers.

"The bad news is that the (good-government groups), editorialists and pundits are getting what they want -- a stronger executive and a weaker Legislature. Isn’t that how the Weimar Republic ended?" Benjamin said, referring to the weak German government that gave rise to totalitarian control by the Nazis.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Gormley is the Albany Capitol editor for The Associated Press and has covered New York politics for the AP for more than 10 years.