(12/11) Catskill Mountain News Article

Original post can be found HERE on Catskill Mountain News

New faces enter the herd

To the surprise of almost no one, the county legislature unanimously approved county executive Mike Hein’s $329 million budget for next year last week. Even Hein’s severest critic, outspoken freshman Democrat Joe Maloney of Saugerties, a man Hein once called a “clown,” was on board.

One would think that among 23 legislators, twelve from the opposition caucus, somebody would have found something to vote against. For sure, there was plenty of debate on amendments and the like, but the bottom line came out almost exactly as submitted by the executive more than two months ago.

The bottom line, of course, is the tax levy where Hein recommended a $200,000 reduction (0.26%) from this year’s $76.7 million levy, allowing Hein and the legislature to brag on campaign that they have reduced taxes for the 11th straight year. From such crumbs careers are extended.

It could have been – should have been – much, much more. Ask former legislature chairman Gerry Benjamin, whose New Paltz-based think tank the legislature hired for some $70,000 to review Hein’s budget. Benjamin, a retired professor of political science at SUNY-New Paltz, apparently found lots of loose cash floating around in the budget Hein presented the first week in October. Among other recommendations, Benjamin advised the legislature to lower the tax levy by $1 million (five times what the exec advised, but still only 1.3% under this year) and increase sales tax projections by another $4 million, twice the executive’s target.

Benjamin hits mother lode

It would appear Benjamin had hit the mother lode, the sanctum sanctorum, judging from the almost apoplectic reaction from the sixth floor. “Reckless,” fumed Hein, according to published reports. Turning the knife, Hein reminded readers that Benjamin as Legislature chairman had raised the tax levy by more than 80 percent in one year. So there! Moreover, Hein said he implicitly trusted the projections of his “team,” suggesting quite obviously that nobody else better mess with those numbers, either.

And nobody did. Not even Fightin’ Joe Maloney, who rarely misses a chance to whack the executive for what he (Maloney) considers unethical relationships with (Hein) campaign donors who do business with the county. Hein, like everybody else so accused (think Andrew Cuomo), denies any such pay to play monkey business.

At the risk of going radical here, this latest example of executive seduction suggests some serious reconsideration of the legislature as a whole.

Downsized from 33 to 23 under the 2006 charter revision that created the all-powerful county executive form of government (effective Jan. 1, 2009), most legislators seem to think their oversight duties end with finding a parking space on meeting or committee nights. In other words, it’s an executive form of government, let the executive do it. The executive suggested as much in citing his fiscal team as the be-all and end-all to budget policy.

It’s probably not going to happen, but the independent redistricting commission voters approved in November should also consider further downsizing this unwieldy and demonstrably ineffective legislature to no more than 15 members. The executive will not embrace the prospect of only 10 votes required to override a veto (it’s 16 at present), but might welcome the prospect of dealing with fewer requests for roads, bridges in their districts and relatives on the county payroll.

Calling Hector

With the budget out of the way, legislators can turn to what really matters most: leadership positions for next year.

For most of this year, minority leader Hector Rodriquez, D-New Paltz, has been plotting the next step up. And we’re not talking about majority leader; Democrats are expected to secure the majority at next November’s elections. No. The stars are lining up for something almost unprecedented in legislative history: a one-year chairman.

Here’s how things are shaping up, or not.

Despite being elected to two-year terms, leaders are elected by their respective caucuses to one-year terms every year. Considering continuity, it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how it is. Chairmen are almost always elected twice in a term by the full legislature. But maybe not this time.

Ronk’s (minimal) 12-vote majority consists of four nonenrolled legislators, all endorsed by the GOP, and eight registered Republicans. If any switch, Democrats take a majority and the chairmanship. In fact, Joe Maloney, an independent elected with Republican backing, has already cast his lot with Democrats. He started caucusing with Democrats last summer after being personally escorted to his new seat across the aisle by none other than the man who would be chairman.

Whether the mercurial Maloney continues to dance with who brung him remains to be seen. Ronk got Maloney’s vote for chairman at this time last year by appointing him to the coveted and powerful Ways and Means committee, only to watch Maloney bolt six months later.

Rodriguez, who’s reached for brass rings in the past, despite exhaustive effort and enhanced profile, is in no way guaranteed anointment even if Democrats have the necessary 12 votes. To put it politely, he is not universally admired. For sure, the chairmanship and its $7,000 stipend (rank and file get $14,000 a year, leaders another $2,500) could draw more flies to the ointment.

Raise the State Legislature

Say what you will about the state legislature, at least they provide some counter-balance to the executive. And now, after waiting some 20 years, they’ll get paid, much, much better for it.

A special commission on elected compensation is recommending a 64% raise from a base of $79,500 (more like $95,000 with lulus) to $130,000 by 2021. The collective 64 percent raise off base roughly represents the rate of inflation since legislative salaries were last increased in 1998; adjusted for CPI.

It’s still a big number for a part-time job with perks and benefits unheard of in the private sector.

As usual, it’s more about the way that they made the sausage rather than the tasty treat it produced.