State Authorities May Face the Music

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AFP/Getty Images
    Manuel Espinoza plays the violin at the 6 train's 68th street station January 28, 2009. The MTA is one of hundreds of state authorities that may be overhauled by a reform bill Gov. Paterson is prepared to sign.

    New York State’s many authorities may have to face the music very soon. A bill to make these mysteriously run agencies more accountable to the people whose money they spend -- the taxpayers -- is expected to be signed by the Governor in the next few days.
     
    Assemblyman Richard Brodsky of Westchester, who has worked diligently for years to make this happen, is optimistic.

    “This time,” he told me, “I think the law will be changed and that will open up a large part of hidden government to public view. It will be good for New York and for all of us.”
            
    Brodsky says “it’s the most sweeping reform of government in decades.” 
     
    There are hundreds of public authorities in New York State. They were set up by past governors and mayors to increase efficiency --but also to get around the time-honored American idea of checks and balances.

    Both Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson have resisted this reform legislation.

    The mayor doesn’t like it, Brodsky says, because it weakens his influence on these agencies, particularly the MTA.

    Paterson had similar reservations, but now he’s seen the light, according to Brodsky, and is expected to sign this reform legislation.

    At the core of the reform package is a provision to give the state comptroller the power to review contracts that the authorities give out. Notably, the no-bid contracts that companies receive without having to compete with other firms.

    Such contracts don’t always pass the smell test and, yet, are awarded quietly, secretly. Tens of billions of dollars are involved.

    Among the many agencies that need scrutiny are: the State Power Authority, the State Thruway Authority, the Health and Hospitals Corporation, the Long Island Power Authority and the MTA.

    The people don’t elect their bosses. Although members are appointed by the governor and mayor, most function thereafter in their own private worlds. They are nests of patronage -- with appointed jobs not subject to public or legislative scrutiny.

    In years of covering government, we have found that the absolute power wielded by authorities often breeds arrogance. These immense entities are basically responsible to no one.

    For example, the giant MTA was established by Governor Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsay to run the transit system and commuter railroads. Fares were raised regularly with little regard to the impact on the lives of the riders. Often, authority executives who didn’t have to answer directly to the public were running the show and felt no direct pressure from people to do a better job. 
     
    Among the underlying questions that should get answers from independent examination of MTA operations would be: why do the fares go up? Who’s making the decisions? Similar questions could be raised about other authorities. The people are entitled to answers. Transparency will certainly help.
     
    Brodsky is right when he says: “We don’t need Soviet-style bureaucracies to spend the people’s money or do the people' business.