Sometimes politics goes not from ridiculous to sublime, but directly to hilarious. Witness the Ulster County Legislature’s $75,000 offering to the state legislature attendant on the latter returning to session within a month and passing the 1 percent Ulster County sales-tax extension. Ridiculous? Even some legislators who voted for it said so.
And then there was Assemblyman Kevin Cahill’s response, delivered only hours after his former colleagues acted. “This [state] legislature is not for sale or even for rent,” he declared, probably tongue in cheek, after the county legislature voted 13-8 to offer the state legislature $75,000.
Hilarious? You bet.
Pay-to-play in our state government probably goes back to George Clinton. This legislature is not for sale or even for rent? How about those legislators currently cooling their heels in lockups? How about the millions of dollars from special interests that pour into campaign coffers?
So pervasive is the practice of servicing donors that it is now done without blush. How about state Sen. John Bonacic last week shilling for gambling interests before the chamber of commerce after taking an $11,000 campaign donation from the casino lobby? It’s perfectly legal, in fact so routine as to be hardly noteworthy. It seems we have lost our collective sense of smell.
The scheme to attempt to bribe the legislature into returning to special session seems to have originated in the imaginative minds of the legislature’s Ways and Means Committee. Or it might have risen from the manipulative county executive branch, which controls more votes on the committee than does the majority. (Ever notice how executive budgets whiz through year after year with hardly a burp?)
The choices, said committee Chairman Rich Gerentine at last week’s legislature meeting, were to do nothing, thereby costing the county something like $2 million a month in sales tax revenues, or this cockamamie scheme.
Sometimes nothing is the better choice. As is often said, “It is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.”
Though how they came up with a figure of $75,000 (roughly $350 for each of 210 sitting state legislators (there are three vacancies in the Assembly) remains a mystery, it did add to the hilarity, and reminded at least one observer of Lorne Michaels’ $3,000 offer on Saturday Night Live to The Beatles if they would reunite on the show. (In Lorne’s defense, he did up it to $3,200.)
The ever-creative Rob Parete, soon, sadly, to retire after a decade of diligent service, suggested the $14,000 budgeted for county legislators’ annual mileage account could be used to offset part of the cost of coercing the state legislature. In the spirit of Abe Lincoln, this foolish amendment was ruled out of order.
As often happens in rambling legislative debate, one subject leads smoothly to an entirely unconnected one.
Wayne Harris, a retired school administrator and one of the more intelligent legislators, made the plausible point that county mileage reimbursement democratizes the legislature in supporting members from far-flung districts. “My friend Dave Donaldson [of Kingston] can walk to the county office building,” he said. “My colleague Craig Lopez lives 40 miles away in WalkerValley.” As an aside, most people don’t get paid mileage to and from work, but then most people don’t vote on their own benefits either.
But few legislators can long resist foolishness. A few moments later, Harris suggested that visitors to Ulster County probably spend more in sales tax than do residents. Nobody knows, of course, but the best Harris supporters could come up with was the guesstimate that maybe 15 or 20 percent of sales taxes came from abroad.
And so it went.
At least 10 (unopposed) incumbents will return, with probably another 10 running against less-than-robust opposition. Change, therefore, is not likely.
The Cahill-Hein dispute over the sales tax extension continues to fester. I think Cahill, after starting this business by placing conditions on sales tax renewal in June, may have pretty much lost the public. But I am hearing also that some people agree with the assemblyman that giving the county government less taxpayer money to spend might not be such a bad idea. If only he would apply similar constraints to state spending.
Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo, in his annual budget message last week, blasted Cahill and/or the $750,000 he says the assemblyman’s sales-tax blockade will cost the city no less than 15 times in the first three pages of a 14-page presentation. Holy overkill!
There is now some speculation that Gallo’s campaign against his former ally might have an ulterior motive in the form of a Gallo-Cahill Democratic primary for Assembly next September. (I get paid small bucks to speculate about these things.) The early money would be on Cahill. But a kinder, gentler Gallo, with Mike Hein and his high-powered media machine in his corner, could mount a challenge.
Unlike most of the more than 150 people in attendance at Monday’s Kerhonkson Historical Society meet-the-candidates night, I was there to witness how county legislator candidates Terry Bernardo and Lynn Archer squared off in front of a live audience. Democrat Archer, a retired banker and two-term Rochester town board member, is challenging Republican Bernardo, a three-term county legislator and two-term chairwoman.
Event organizers were careful to sit the antagonists as far apart as possible at ends of a long table, with five town board candidates in between. The wonder is they didn’t put one of them in the parking lot.
As the sitting chairman of the legislature rarely gets challenged, this face-off brought some heavy hitters to the Kerhonkson firehouse. Taking careful notes was Deputy County Administrator Ken Crannell, no doubt on assignment from county exec Hein. In the next seat was county Democratic Chairman Frank Cardinale, who calls Bernardo a do-nothing chair. Given the stakes, a guest appearance by county GOP boss Roger Rascoe would have been a plus for Bernardo, but the Rajah, it seems, only attends GOP functions. Comptroller Elliott Auerbach is everywhere, so his presence wasn’t notable. But his long-shot challenger Linda McDonough made a few friends in the back of the hall.
Those who, like me, were looking for sparks between this legislature marquee candidates came away disappointed.
There were of course subtle snipes of the insider variety. Archer’s comment about equal treatment of constituents might have been interpreted as a slap at the Bernardos’ long-running dispute with the county Industrial Development Agency over tax abatements for the roller rink they own in Accord. Bernardo’s pass at “Kingston power players” was obviously aimed at Hein, who has endorsed Archer.
If Archer disappointed her patron, it was when she ducked a question on casino gambling. Hein, of course, is all in on that one. Bernardo trumped her foe, offering vigorous support to a crowd hungering for jobs, any jobs.