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Academics
October 14, 2009

Can New York State Government Be Reformed?

Panel Discussion Co-Hosted by the Manhattan Institute and St. Francis College

With multi-billion dollar budget deficits looming for New York State and no clear cut solution to bridge the gap, a group of experts brought together by St. Francis College and the Manhattan Institute on October 14, tackled the issue while answering the question, “Can New York State Government Be Reformed?” (Watch the NY Government Panel)

A crowd of 200 people watched and participated in the discussion, moderated by St. Francis Chancellor Frank J. Macchiarola ’62 with opening remarks from visiting professor and Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Fred Siegel. The esteemed panel included Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, Director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy E.J. McMahon and Distinguished Professor at SUNY New Paltz Gerald Benjamin.

Professor Siegel began the discussion by laying out what he calls the dual dilemma behind the troubles, “On one hand our state institutions are breaking down, on the other hand, economic assumptions we’ve been operating under for the past 25 years are also breaking down.” Siegel went on to talk about several of the challenges facing the state including; having the highest pension costs in the United States, being home to eight of the ten counties in the U.S. with the highest real estate taxes as a percentage of home value and spending more on Medicaid than California and Texas combined.

Nassau County Executive and former gubernatorial candidate Tom Suozzi went further in detailing problems with the structure of Albany. Striking chords he sounded from his platform to Fix Albany, Suozzi talked about how New York spends the most money per student on education but achieves average results or worse by some measurements. He said that it's not just in education where, “we’re spending the money, but we’re not getting the results we deserve.” Suozzi said that in the past the state had pushed rising Medicaid costs to the counties while not doing enough to try to rein in those rapidly growing expenses. He pointed out that he successfully capped Medicaid contributions at the county level forcing state lawmakers to try harder to contain those rising costs or risk huge state deficits.

E.J. McMahon flatly stated that the current budget crisis, which could leave New York State with a deficit of more than 20 billion dollars in just a few years, "is easily the worst fiscal crisis in New York State since the 1970's. It's the worst fiscal crisis the state itself has faced." He said that while New York will not be in as bad shape as California; the state is heading in that direction. McMahon also said that a proposal coming out of California’s crisis is the type of new thinking that needs to be done in New York. In that proposal the authors recommended flattening and broadening the California state income tax, eliminating sales tax and corporate tax and adding a business receipts tax.

Taking the opportunity to push for a partial solution, Professor Benjamin laid out the benefits of holding a Constitutional Convention. “We have to somehow mobilize New Yorkers, who I think are awaiting their cue,” he said. Benjamin argued that we cannot count on state lawmakers to take the necessary steps to solve the crisis but instead should use the opportunity of a constitutional convention to go around the legislature to try to at least chip away at some of the structural problems within Albany. Professor Benjamin pointed out that it would require three statewide votes; to agree to have the convention, to elect members of the convention and to approve their proposal.

Chancellor Macchiarola pointed out that while the convention may help, "What strikes me is how desperate the situation must be, if within this state, people who are making an argument for change have to make it around the holding of a constitutional convention that won’t take place for at least somewhere close to ten years."

As per the current state constitution, a request for a convention comes up every twenty years. The next time it is scheduled is in 2017. Lawmakers can also push to put the question on a ballot, but that is thought to be highly unlikely.

This forum was the second one hosted by St. Francis College and the Manhattan Institute, the first one in May, Keeping New York in the Black, Our Current Fiscal Woes In Light Of The 1975 Fiscal Crisis, looked to the people who helped solve the 1975 fiscal crisis to bring context to current budget problems.

St. Francis College, founded in 1859 by the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn, is located in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. Since its founding, the College has pursued its Franciscan mission to provide an affordable, high-quality education to students from New York City’s five boroughs and beyond.
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St. Francis College, 180 Remsen Street, Brooklyn Heights, NY 11201
www.sfc.edu

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