The general public has little or no idea how government works. Citizens may go to a town, city council or village board meeting, but they’re usually there for a brief visit about some neighborhood issue, and after that there’s no longer any contact with the world of elected officials. Most of my service has been in state government, having spent 23 years in the State Assembly. When I contrast the State Legislature of my years to the current one, I must confess I have mixed emotions.
When I arrived in Albany in 1966, and through all the years that I was in office, the makeup of the Legislature was what I think the founding fathers would have approved. There were insurance agents, teachers, bankers, undertakers, merchants and former athletes, and there was even a legislator who drove trotting horses at night. They all had some things in common, which were either prior public service or they knew what it was like to make a payroll.
Almost all of my colleagues understood that being an elected official required time and patience. Many of them who were committee chairs had a deep knowledge of their assigned subject, and their expertise was obvious during floor debates. I often found myself in awe at how a particular member had mastered a very complex area and could speak with such intimate knowledge about a pending proposal.
Luckily, I had the chance to either listen to or be a part of floor debates that were challenging and sometimes combative. Because I eventually rose to be the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, I had the opportunity to learn the inside workings of state government, which was an experience that I cherish to this day.
But sadly, today’s Legislature is no longer a carbon copy of the one I experienced. On the positive side, there are still many hard-working members who have a positive influence on the legislative process. They know what they’re talking about, and their many successes in creating new laws is proof of their effectiveness. The Long Island legislative delegation, headed by Sen. Todd Kaminsky, is a very effective group, and they display sanity and knowledge when they speak out on some important issue.
That’s the good news about today’s Albany. But there’s also a very unsettling side to the changes that are taking place. Every person has the right to run for office, and if they can get a majority of the voters to support them, they will have the exciting opportunity to serve. From time to time, some new members become a positive force in the Legislature and succeed by doing their homework.
But there are a growing number of new members who have no life experience, and are now in the public arena without a clue about what is expected of them. Some call themselves “progressive,” but their positions on vital subjects are far from progressive. New laws cost money, and there should be an understanding that the average taxpayer can afford just so much.
The newcomers focus on finding ways to tax the people that they consider “rich.” They advocate punishing tax measures that are a message to New Yorkers that if you can relocate, now is the time. The number of residents and businesses that leave the state is rising at a staggering rate. States like Florida are welcoming these disenchanted people with open arms.
I have had over a dozen conversations in the past six months with people who aren’t Jeff Bezos types but who are giving up on New York because they see what has happened and fully expect times to get even worse. It’s bad enough that so many people’s lives have been decimated by a year of Covid, and now they face punishing program after program that threaten their ability to survive economically.
There is no magic formula to change the direction of state politics. Maybe an aroused public will take action on Election Day, but that’s probably wishful thinking. What some people call good change I call a calamity.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.