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lifton1009_120With low turnout at a 'town hall meeting' with State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton last Saturday, the meeting resembled more of a Thanksgiving dinner where everyone in the family has to be aggressive to get a word into the conversation.  But that just made the meeting more interesting.  While Lifton was preaching to the choir in that most or all the participants were also Democrats, the conversation was substantive on a number of key issues in ways it couldn't be in a larger, more formal gathering.

In fact, with County Legislator Pat Pryor and Lansing Town Councilwoman Kathy Miller among the group, the free form discussion lent insight into three layers of government representatives, along with ideas and questions from Valerie White and Marcy Rosenkrantz.  Lifton started the discussion by saying that New York is not unique in it's budget and deficit woes, blaming the problems on a national recession and New York Republicans.

"Senate Republicans staged a coup," she said.  "They linked up with the two most dubious Democrats they could find.  There was a total breakdown there and that caused enormous problems.  And it certainly didn't help people's trust that government is functional."

Some of the discussion went to the absence of bipartisan cooperation on the national level, which Lifton said is echoed in Albany.  She said Democrats have tried to reach across the aisle to compromise on issues, but Republicans don't cooperate.

"You watched Obama try to reach out to Republicans for a whole year.  He talked to them.  He said give me your ideas.  They included a bunch of it in the stimulus package.  They said no, we're not going to do more.  The republicans said these are Democratic projects about the federal stimulus.  he gave them all kinds of things, tax cuts they wanted.  And they still wouldn't vote for it.  I'm not saying my Democratic Party is perfect.  But they are doing some things."

Pryor agreed.  She said that there is always tension between the party in power and the minority party, but said it has never been this extreme before.  She said she would like to go back to the day of true bipartisanship where she could feel that elected officials really cared about doing the things that would benefit the community.

Lifton said that party politics on the state level has mirrored the extreme politics in Washington.  Miller said that is because too many incumbents are reelected.

"What I've seen over many, many years..." she said,  "There was all this talk back with Reagan and when Father Bush took over.  They pushed it very hard.  Why?  They were pushing a far right agenda that said cut government.  It was Milton Friedman economics.  But they actually enlarged government, mostly to go to war.  Not to fund education, not to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, but to subsidize business, and bloated government."

There was much discussion about the press and how people learn about what is happening in state, and other levels of government.  With major media outlets focusing on scandal and governmental failure, Lifton says they don't report on what the Legislature is really doing.

"The whole media climate is hampering discussion of the real issues," Lifton said.  "You've got propaganda machines.  People are saying 'I don't know what to believe.'  And they're turning off to it.  And they're tired of the fighting and tired of the name calling."

"People don't have any idea what's happening in Albany," she continued.  "They don't have any idea.  I'm doing my job day after day.  I'm at my desk, I'm in meetings, I'm negotiating bills, trying to get stuff done... and I pick up the paper.  Once every year there is a blowup scandal thing.  There are 211 legislators there.  One is indicted or under investigation every year?  We're going to bash the whole government and say everyone's corrupt?  Everyone should be tossed out?  We wouldn't do that with any other profession."

Lifton town meeting(Left to right) Kathy Miller, Marcy Rosenkrantz, Pat Pryor, Valerie White, Barbara Lifton

"We have grown to the point that it's become very difficult to explain tho people the kind of choices  that elected officials have to make," Pryor said.  "I've become increasingly aware of this since I've been in office again.  And this is only on the county level.  To try to give people the amount of information that they need to fully understand the choices we have to make would take sitting down with someone for an hour to talk about just one issue."

Miller said that most people don't keep up on issues, or even care to.  She said that an active interest in government is not taught in schools any more.  But Lifton said that all the negative press discourages people from wanting to stay informed or get involved in government.

"The impression you get is not really the reality that I live with every day," Lifton said.  "The State Legislature is full of wonderful, hard working, smart people of integrity.  And my work is good, and rewarding, and meaningful.  I'm worried that when the voters get tired of me, or I get tired of the commute that very few people are going to come forward to say I really want to do this job."

White brought up the issue of term limits.  On this the three representatives in the room differed.  Lifton said she has always been against them on the grounds that it takes years for legislators to become knowledgeable enough about issues to be effective, and because she says it is inherently undemocratic to arbitrarily prevent a representative from running when voters still want him or her.

"If you want to term limit me by saying there's someone better and we're going to go support that person and try to get them elected, that ought to be your decision," she said.

But Miller said that politicians who are in office for long periods of time risk being corrupted by the system itself.  She said her uncle, a long time politician, thought that 20 years should be the limit.  "I used to love John McCain," she said.  "I liked the stuff he did.  I liked that he was a maverick.  What I fear is that when people are in government for a long time, they may have started out as a really good, wonderful person but after so many years they're not that person any more.  They might not be involved in big scandals, but they are involved in too much 'you vote for mine, I'll vote for yours'."

"I don't necessarily support term limits," Pryor said.  "But I can see the case for the argument that there is a lot more that influences who gets elected than just whether or not ordinary voters out there think that person is doing a good job.  A lot of it has to do with who has the best campaign, who has the money to put in, who's got the backing of the party... there are so many other factors that influence it that it's not simply who is the person that the voters would most like to choose."

White asked what would happen to partisan politics if a third party came into prominence.  There was discussion abut that, but it came down to a matter of people forming new parties, then pushing them to gain credibility to get votes.

Rosenkrantz asked about the per diem payments that state legislators get, and how they are accounted for.  Lifton noted that virtually nobody in state government lives in Albany.  They have to stay in a hotel, pay for meals and travel.  She said that the $170 per day they receive is not excessive, and is in line with federal guidelines for per diem payments.

Lifton said she is against capping local property taxes unless the state replaces lost revenue to local municipalities.  Pryor and Lifton agreed that property tax is regressive.  Lifton said that state mandates should be paid for by the State.  Pryor agreed.

"If the state is going to mandate it, the state ought to pay for it," she said.  "I don't care to make a list for the state to pay for this one and this one and this one... I want you to take them all."

Lifton said that if all mandates are to be paid for on the state level the government will need to look at a massive restructuring of the tax structure.   She advocated restoring some of the taxes on wealthier New Yorkers.

"We have cut the income tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers by 50%," Lifton said.  "That's where the money comes from."

All in all the small discussion proved to be a good model to find out what legislators really think, and provided a much different insight into government than you see in the headlines.

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