The state legislature is back for another round in Albany and Gov. David Paterson is threatening to keep them there until they do something responsible about New York's budget problems.
Since there are only a handful of people in the Assembly and Senate who would be missed back home, that sounds like a good idea. Lock them up forever. It would take that long to get them to make any hard choices about the state's staggering finances.
If you've been following this story at all, you may be wondering why the legislators seem unmoved by the universal denunciation that rains down on them every day from other elected officials, newspaper editorial pages and virtually every student of state government in the country.
Wouldn't you think they'd be embarrassed? Want to do something?
To understand the way Albany thinks, look to the ongoing trial of Joseph Bruno, the 80-year-old former Senate majority leader. Prosecutors say Bruno made $3.2 million by getting unions (who needed his political favors) to invest their pension and other benefit funds with financial firms (who paid him as a consultant).
In 1998, the union that represents New York correction officers was angling for an increase in their pension benefits. This is something that should have been part of contract negotiations. But one of the poisonous aspects of New York politics is that the state legislature frequently elbows into these matters to give special presents to the unions, who of course will be grateful.
But the city is stuck with the bills. Back then, Rudy Giuliani was mayor. He estimated the pension sweetener would cost the city $100 million a year, not to mention the bill from other unions who would line up to demand similar benefits. Giuliani presumed the Assembly - which was run by Democrats after all - would pass the increase, but that his friends in the Senate would kill the whole idea.
After all, the Senate was run by Republicans. Fiscal conservatives.
Joe Bruno was at the time a great supporter of Rudy's plans to run for higher office. Senate. President. God. You name it, Bruno was for it. But not so much that he was willing to cross the Corrections Officers, whose union had very recently hired a financial firm Bruno was associated with to manage $10 million of their money.
The guards got their pension hike. The city paid. Giuliani howled. Bruno shrugged.
There's been a lot of interesting testimony at the trial, including claims by a road contractor that the $270,000 he paid Bruno was not for favors, but for the Senator's skill as a motivational speaker. And Mark ("I ordered people to hurt people") Congi, a former president of Laborers Local 91 turned prison inmate, testified that his union hired one of Bruno's financial firms "to make Mr. Bruno happy - that we would invest in this company and he'd do us favors."
No one seems sure how the Bruno trial will turn out since given the vagueness of the ethics laws governing the legislature, not much bad behavior is clearly illegal.
Bruno himself seems to regard the entire trial as an insult. Anything he did, he did because he is a friend of the working man. He complained in a recent radio interview that the feds were spending too much time and money trying to nail him. "I wasn't a terrorist," he pointed out.
This sums up the good points of the state legislator. None of them seem to be terrorists.
But in many, many cases, the only budget they care about is their own.
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