Reform is everywhere in Albany — in floor debates on the Legislature this spring, in campaign speeches this summer, even in your mailboxes and inboxes. Incumbents and challengers are vowing to finally fix Albany's late budgets, ethical morass, rising taxes and paralyzing partisanship.
Reform is everywhere, it seems, except in reality.
"Everyone talks a good game," said Assemblyman Brian Kolb, a Finger Lakes Republican and the Assembly's minority leader. "People say they want to reform Albany out of one side of their mouth, and then when it comes time to act, they don't."
His idea is to hold a "people's constitutional convention" that could enact term limits, spending and tax caps, even merge the Senate and Assembly into one, less expensive chamber. Lawmakers and legislative leaders called it a good idea, editorial boards praised it. No one publicly trashed it.
Yet the bill Kolb announced 12 months ago and introduced in September hasn't budged since April 13. By a partisan vote, the majority party Democrats in the Assembly Judiciary Committee held it "for consideration."
In the Democrat-controlled Senate, the bill hasn't moved from the Elections Committee since it was referred there in January.
Last week, a separate effort headed by former Democratic Mayor Ed Koch of New York City also stumbled. He seeks to get Albany incumbents and challengers to commit, in writing, to specific basic reforms, but couldn't gain the signatures of the Legislature's leaders.
Instead, each side blamed the other for failing to agree to their many bills to improve campaigning and governing. More than 100 incumbents, including Senate leader John Sampson, a Brooklyn Democrat, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a lower Manhattan Democrat, refused to commit to Koch's measures. They include creating a single powerful ethics enforcement board, assuring on-time and responsible budgets, and redrawing election district lines next year that no longer favor the party in power.
Albany's dysfunction, it turns out, functions well when it comes to blocking improvements in how government operates.
"Silver and Sampson have individually supported specific reform measures, but at the end of the day we still don't have a budget, we still don't have campaign finance reform, we still have ethical misconduct by too many legislators," said Dick Dadey of the Citizens Union good-government group.
"Elected officials need to be judged by results ... It's fine to take positions, but if we don't have laws enacted then it hasn't happened," he said.
Kolb's quest is an even bigger lift, especially for a minority legislator in the system in which majorities control legislation and resources.
"State government has been broken for a long time and Kolb's focus on this is a testament to the need to start over," Dadey said. "Voters are angry, state government is not working, the Legislature is not being responsive, so let's try to call a convention and see if we can change it. But it's just so difficult."
A Siena College poll this month found more than 60 percent of New Yorkers had an unfavorable view of the Legislature, blaming Democrats and Republicans equally. Seventy-one percent said the state is headed in the wrong direction.
Yet despite the continued criticism, Dadey said few incumbent legislators are being challenged. He blames that on the power of incumbency: Taxpayer paid staffs, lobbyist campaign contributions, and resources such as printing and TV and radio resources to spin their accomplishments.
Now legislators are using some of those resources to campaign as reformers after a two-year legislative session that featured a paralyzing coup in the Senate last summer, several ethics investigations, some of the biggest tax increases and deficits in history and a state budget that is nearly four months late.
"I believe and I have said from the very beginning, that if anything can be accomplished it's this year because people are so angry," Koch said. "The only thing they can think of is 'throw the bums out,' meaning all of the legislators."
"In prior years, they used to say, 'Everybody else except my legislator is a bum,'" the three-term mayor said. "Now they are saying my legislator is a bum."
"Far too many candidates clearly want to keep our state exactly the way it is," Koch said. "They benefit from the corruption, the dysfunction, the inanity that defines Albany and they clearly don't want to do anything about it."
Meanwhile, Kolb continues to hold statewide town meetings calling for the Legislature to approve a citizens constitutional convention, rather than wait for the next required consideration of a convention in 2017.
"He's not going to get an early one," Koch predicted.