2007-01-04 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Winds Of Change Blowing As Spitzer Takes Office
By Neil S. Friedman

As the New Year begins, so does a new session of the state legislature in Albany and, hopefully, with it a new era. It may be wishful thinking - or naive optimism - but if Governor Eliot Spitzer, who took the oath of office on Monday, manages to fulfill just a few of his campaign promises for ethical reform, New York state's legislature could begin cleaning up its act.

Yeah, we've heard that before, including broad statements from his predecessor, who, though he vowed to shake things up, just emboldened a shoddy system. But maybe, just maybe, Eliot Spitzer, the former state attorney general, who established a reputation for targeting corporate lawbreakers, will literally clean house and guide what has been termed the nation's most dysfunctional legislature into one that does what it's supposed to - work for the citizens of the Empire State.

Despite repeated broken promises in the past, this time the winds of change for serious reform seem to be stirring, though it's doubtful how much the new governor will be able to accomplish in his first term, especially if veteran legislators fear for their futures and challenge him. Nonetheless, it's a beginning, regardless of how overdue it is.

In his 20-minute inaugural speech, Spitzer managed to incorporate a guarantee for change with a snippet of state folklore when he remarked, "New York…like Rip Van Winkle had slept through much of the last decade…We have seen what can happen when our government stands still…Today, all of that changes."

Spitzer borrowed and reshaped a famous line from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address 46 years ago when he said, "(What New York needs is) politics that asks not what is in it for me, but always what is in it for us."

Spitzer has vowed to instigate sweeping reforms that would pioneer an era where the state's 19 million residents could finally benefit before greedy self-serving lobbyists and politicians who indulge them.

Lobbying is a chronic disease that has infected all levels of politics for well over a century. It usually supports a small minority at the cost of the majority. It helps makes the rich richer and keeps the poor at a disadvantage by rewarding organizations and corporations with business deals or tax breaks that typically benefits only their executives and money-wise stockholders. Dozens of federal, state and local candidates regularly vow to reform politics, but they're either displaced, never get the opportunity to make a difference or deal with an uphill struggle that is impossible to overcome.

No sooner did Spitzer take the oath of office at 12:01 a.m. on Monday and participate in his inaugural ball than the governor issued the first of what hopefully will be a slew of modifications. One of his first executive orders was to prohibit the use of state property, including vehicles, computers and all communication devices, for unauthorized business. However, if such property is employed for personal use, detailed records must be kept and reported as personal income.

The echo of that mandate must be reverberating in former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi's head. Defiantly refusing to pull out of the November election in which he was reelected - by a large margin - despite a mushrooming scandal, Hevesi finally resigned after pleading guilty to defrauding the state for using a state employee to chauffeur his sickly wife in a state vehicle.

Even as the new session gets underway in Albany, Senate Majority leader Joseph Bruno, the state's top Republican, is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly using his powerful political influence to enrich himself in private business dealings. (Bruno has asserted he is "guilty of nothing.") If the probe is fruitful, it could mean an unprecedented upheaval in state politics that could be part of a revolution in ethical reforms in Albany that Spitzer will steer and force legislators to come clean or find them out of office.

During his final days in office, Gov. Pataki, like his predecessors, made some appointments to insure his cronies will have six-figure incomes after he departed. His actions may be questionable, but Pataki's eleventh-hour mandates are entirely lawful. Consequently, such deeds deserve a place on Spitzer's extensive reform list.

Additionally, at the closing hours of his administration, Pataki reportedly arranged unparalleled security - at a cost to taxpayers of $20,000 a week - for himself and his family. Spitzer immediately called for an independent review, which was sanctioned by freshly sworn-in Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who termed Pataki's decision an "unnecessary perk." Pataki's action reeks of self-indulgence and could come back to haunt the ex-governor if he foolishly decides to run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination.

In a column I wrote more than two years ago I advocated New Yorkers to vote for a change. Well, while I'm certain it wasn't my prompting, they finally did last November and they are, I presume, hoping for bona fide changes to end the fraud and waste that Albany has nourished has lasted too long.

Now, it's up to Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who ended more than a decade of Republican rule in the state Capitol, to not only live up to his pledge to reform the state government, but to breathe a little fresh air into a scandal-scarred legislative body.

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