The New Student Activism
WASHINGTON–To many members of the New York State Legislature, the image of the college student these days is not associated with the current streaking fad. Rather it is connected with an in vestigation of each legislator by students and their full time lawyers and other professional staff called the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).
This unprecedented inquiry is most assuredly not a fad. It is designed to result in 10-20 page profiles by mid-summer about each legislator’s voting record, political behavior and ties to various special interest groups. These profiles, based on interviews, records and other documentary materials, will be made widely available to libraries, media, citizen groups, and individuals interested in judging the people in Albany who are supposed to serve them.
Predictably, NYPIRG’s effort has led to worry, disgruntlement and downright animosity by some legislators. Others are happily or unhappily cooperating. But this student-funded and directed research and action group is going further. It has proposed a seven-point political reform program which is designed to begin the process of cleaning up and making the legislature and state government responsive to and accountable to citizens who can’t hire big time lawyers and lobbyists to grease the wheels.
This reform program includes laws compelling 1) open meetings of legislative committees and state and local agencies; 2) open government records (except to protect personal privacy); 3) meaningful lobbying information and disclosure; 4) public financing of campaigns; 5) conflict of interest prohibition; 6) ballot pamphlets as in Oregon to inform voters about ballot issues and candidates; and 7) the crucial enforcement arm to put teeth in these laws called the independent Political Practices Commission.
The state government in Albany is like many other, but not all, state governments except that the stakes are larger in New York. Dominated by the governor’s offices in the second floor of the legislature and a handful of powerful solons, the members of the legislature play follow the leader on most issues and pursue their special interests faithfully. The committee that regulates the banks, for example, is heavy with lawmakers having close connection with or involved in the banking industry. There is virtually no oversight of government agencies by the various legislative committees, as U.S. Congressional committees engage in from time to time. As a result there is no analysis for the people of how these agencies are operating, spending the taxpayers money. What is more, many of the legislative committee meetings are closed to the public and the records of votes undisclosed.
NYPIRG has released reports showing that patronage jobs are awarded to people (“no-shows”) who receive sizable salaries for doing little or nothing while holding down other, private positions in business full time. Since it was established in September, the student group has released information aboutproperty tax inequity, a low-pollution, fuel-saving demonstration auto, and the phoniness of consumer protection activities by the state government.
Students frequently anger their elders when they assume the adult responsibilities of citizenship. Our society often strives to have students go through a prolonged adolescent period into their early twenties. Recently, observers of the campus scene were relieved to hear that things may be getting back to the normal fifties, what with beer parties and older fashioned dancing back in vogue.
These commentators are missing the expansion of citizen research and action by students at dozens of colleges and universities where PIRGs are supported by almost 500,000 students.
NYPIRG is getting ready for a legislative backlash against their studies. “If it comes,” says lawyer Donald Ross, a former associate and now director of the NYPIRG, “we’ll be ready.” So are many other citizens who want to return the legislature to the people and basic principles of openness and self government. For a copy of the “Political Reform Packet,” write to NYPIRG, 5 Beekman Street , New York, N.Y. 10038.