Last week I had the privilege to spend a day walking the halls of the State Capitol, meeting with a number of elected officials, along with several other board members from the North Country Alliance, an economic development group representing six North Country counties.
The visit was one of awareness for the legislators, and it improved our understanding of the new financial realities in Albany so we can best help our communities enhance their economic opportunities. We told them all about the NCA, and we reminded legislators of the economic importance of tourism and prisons to the North Country. We suggested that, when deliberating on prison closures, resale and/or reuse of the property and the total economic impact should be given greater consideration. And we suggested they level the playing field for small, rural communities to the state's Excelsior Job Program. All pretty mundane stuff.
If you've never paid a visit on your elected representatives in Albany, it's an interesting experience and one every citizen should find the time to do. I've been to the capitol before on similar missions, but this year's visit impressed me in ways that previous years had not. Given the state's financial issues, there was an odd air about the building that I had not seen in the past.
As you go from office to office, I was impressed with the age of the legislative staff members, most of whom are young and very articulate. Of course, it could be that as I get older, they keep looking younger, but the reality is that it's the staff that accomplish a great deal of the work conducted in Albany. They understand the issues, draft the opinions, keep their bosses on point while running interference when needed. When the boss was unavailable, staff would stand in and competently discuss the issues of the day while making clear their bosses' positions on a variety of subjects.
I was also struck by the warm camaraderie between those who work closely within the capitol confines. Much like a fraternity, there is a sense of "insiderness" that is apparent among those who are current or former members of the inner workings. I overheard conversations about being in the trenches together and saw current and former members warmly welcomed.
There also didn't appear to any political animosity among elected officials or their staff, regardless of which side of the aisle they may be seated. I was put back, but not surprised, when I learned that many had recently relocated their offices. When the Democrats took control of the Senate, they "earned the right" to move into the bigger and better offices, but once the Republicans regained control, many of those moves had to be reversed. I understand there are advantages to being part of the majority, but don't legislators have more important things to do than play musical office suites?
I also overheard and saw what I assumed were professional lobbyists, various union groups, school children and everyday citizens who looked like they were bussed in to perhaps represent those who might be affected by pending issues. Some wore names tags, group representation stickers or themed identical T-shirts. Others carried signs, and still others were passing out position fliers. Overall, there was a complete mix of the state's melting pot.
As we waited to see some Assembly and Senate members, you could hear through the walls both happy and certainly more than a few unhappy constituents who - in heated language - made their concerns known. Some of the officials we spoke with were engaging, some entertaining and others not very engaged at all.
I observed many different emotions during my day's stay in Albany. As I drove home and reflected on what I had heard and observed, it dawned on me that nobody expressed the emotion of fear. I came away with the feeling that no one there seemed overly distraught about the many financial problems facing the state. It was more a sense of business as usual, problems to face, positions to defend, turf to protect, but I never saw the face of fear. Was the reason because we have too many safety nets in our society? Or is it because folks, as they look at the massive state budget, figure if they argue, scream and threaten loud enough, they'll get what they want? You can't blame them; those tactics have worked in the past.
I did sense that the winds of change are blowing in Albany. We can only hope our elected officials have the backbone and courage (because they sure don't have the money) to stand up to those who want to maintain the status quo. If my business were in debt comparable to the state of New York, I know many things would be handled differently than they are today. Unfortunately, I did not sense that the movers and shakers at the state capitol are in a "crisis management mode" yet. At least many seem to be aware that a day of reckoning is on the horizon.
Dan Alexander is publisher and owner of Denton Publications. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.