Is Social Media the Key to a Better Government, a Better New York and a Better Western New York?

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I’ve been meaning to write this for a while – maybe years – but I’ve been too afraid. I’ve been too afraid people would see the idea as crazy. I’ve been too afraid people 15141_3708_ethernet_router_stock_xchng_royalty_free_300would fail to believe the problem exists. I’ve been too afraid people would read politics instead of common sense. In a phrase, I’ve been too afraid.

And, I admit, I’m still a little afraid. With today’s culture in the noose of political correctness, it seems any misplaced modifier has the power to send one to ruin. Ruin, I am told, is a not a very good place to visit, let alone live in. Perhaps it’s because it rains there every day.

Whatever the case, on the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia. Well, maybe not the City of Brotherly Love, for it has become the City of the Blogger Levy. According to the Washington Post (“Bloggers crying foul over Philly business tax,” August 23, 2010), bloggers will be charged a $300 lifetime license for the right to freely publish their press (but only if they sell ads). This has mommy bloggers and daddy bloggers in quite a tizzy. It also highlights what Scott Rasmussen says has been fueling the anger in the “mainstream” class.

In “The Weekend Interview with Scott Rasmussen: America’s Insurgent Pollster,” (The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2010), Mr. Rasmussen, a founder of ESPN who has correctly predicted an incredible string of recent elections offers this analysis: America today consists of two classes: The Political Class and the Mainstream Class. All those elected officials in Philadelphia (and the media bigwigs who support their blogger tax) lie within the Political Class. (Some would say they lie in other places, too, but we won’t go there.) The angry bloggers? That would be the Mainstream Class.

For some odd reason, implies Rasmussen, vast hordes of Americans feel they’re subservient to an aristocratic coalition of politicians and big business. For most, 2009’s bailout headlines provide ample evidence for the guilt of big business. But, have we seen similar reporting on the culpability of politicians (other than the all-too-usual scandal)?

Yes!

The day after The Wall Street Journal featured Scott Rasmussen, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle followed up with what at first appeared to be a direct hit. In its banner headline “State Legislature spending continues to soar,” (August 22, 2010), the Rochester daily bluntly asks, “Are New Yorkers getting their money’s worth from the state Legislature?” The article then goes on to point out “At $216.3 million annually, New York trails only California and Pennsylvania in overall cost of running the state legislative branch. Those costs include salaries and stipends, or ‘lulus,’ which together average $95,667 in the Senate and $89,419 in the Assembly.” Not bad for part-time work.

Unfortunately, other than what I just mentioned, the article is too thin on facts and too flush with rhetoric. A barely disguised anti-incumbent manifesto, the D&C piece no doubt left most astute readers wondering, “If not them, then who? And what?” Harking back to Rasmussen, this explains why the Political class remains in and the Mainstream class remains out. (Let me know if you need the dots connected and I’ll do it in the comment section below.)

So I turned to The Buffalo News archives for more comprehensive articles. It turns out, not only was the Queen City’s newspaper on the subject earlier, it also provided better ammo. In his story “Senator on hiring binge since party seized majority,” (The Buffalo News, August 1, 2010), reporter James Heaney profiles Albany’s business-as-usual. His first three paragraphs read as follows: “State Sen. Antoine M. Thompson’s office has resembled a hiring hall since Democrats took control of the Senate last year. Back when Thompson and his fellow Democrats were in the minority, he employed two full-time staff members. Today, he’s got 11, plus two others squirreled away elsewhere on the Senate payroll.”

Heaney then details the specific costs and salaries. He paints a picture not of a citizen legislator, but of a business, even quoting an anonymous source stating, “the staff in the Buffalo office spends up to half its time working on social events that Thompson sponsors — including breakfasts, luncheons, picnics, dances, spelling bees — and the senator’s participation in parades and other public events.” To be sure, Heaney colors both parties with the same brush.

That would be the color of Rasmussen’s Political class. Perhaps the pollster is right. We’re not Republicans or Democrats (or whatever) anymore, we’re either the Political class or the Mainstream class.

Credit Heaney with being consistent. Several years ago he wrote the story “$200 million a year to run the State Legislature,” (The Buffalo News, October 23, 2008). He sums up the state of the State in this way “Welcome to the New York State Legislature, which spends more than $200 million a year and employs more than 3,500 to serve the wants and needs of 212 members of the Senate and Assembly. Put another way, the Legislature employs as many people as the City of Buffalo and the Town of Amherst combined. Cops, firefighters, trash collectors – the whole works.”

None of these articles pushed me over the edge and had me offer the following. Rather, the credit goes to the D&C and its story “Towns spread news through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube,” (Democrat and Chronicle, August 23, 2010).

Here’s the idea. Since you’ve made it this far, I’ll keep it simple.

Since much of the costs outlined in the articles above focus on the cost of our state legislators keeping duel offices – one among their Albany peers (the Political Class) and one among their Western New York constituents (the Mainstream), my idea would require all state legislators to close their Albany offices and work only from their local office. When it’s time to meet, legislative bodies would conduct business like any other 21st century business. To save costs during this economic downturn, business folks travel less and spend more time meeting virtually. Why can’t the New York State legislature do the same? At most, the Assembly and Senate would meet quarter. At the very least, they’d have one annual meeting.

That’s it. After all, what’s cheaper – a square foot of office space in Albany or a router the size of a square foot?

Think of the advantages:

  1. More state money goes to the local Western New York district (which will now require a bigger office).
  2. Less of our tax money would go to Albany (other than maybe a few days a year for an annual meeting, representatives would spend more time in their home town).
  3. We’d spend less money on staff and salaries (because the elected officials will no longer need to staff two offices and, by spending more time at home – and presumably their own businesses – they’d be able to earn more through their own private firms; thus, need less from the State.
  4. As more State business is conducted over the internet, it becomes public immediately and the possibility of those vilified “back-room” deals lessens.
  5. Without a high concentration of the Political class in one location (Albany), the cost of lobbying will both soar and become harder to hide, discouraging another issue the Mainstream has with the Political class.
  6. This will bring high-quality network capability to every district.

We can do this. Businesses already do this. The folks using social media can attest this will work.

So, why don’t we do it?

(Feel free to add your ideas in the comment section below.)

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