The big divide in Albany is about priorities. With a raft of legislation, Governor Spitzer last week made it clear where his priorities will be: campaign finance restrictions, judicial pay raises, abortion rights, gay marriage, nonpartisan redistricting.
The list got two thumbs down from the Republican Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, who said the governor is focusing on the wrong things. "What I want to know is what is this governor doing now to fulfill the campaign promises of creating jobs, stimulating the economy. That's what the people want," he said.
They do? To try to get to the bottom of the question, I conducted an unscientific questionnaire with five New Yorkers from across the state: a corporate lawyer from Buffalo, a Subway restaurant employee from Auburn in Cayuga, a plumber from Binghamton, a teacher from Suffolk, and a bodega employee from Brooklyn.
I had in mind the location and occupation of each person I wanted to talk to, and everybody aside from the bodega employee whom I talked to in person, I randomly called with the aid of online directories. Everyone was asked the same question: What do you think is the most pressing problem facing New Yorkers today?
I first talked to Kasandra Gonzales, who dropped out of Cayuga Community College and is now earning $11,000 a year making sandwiches at Subway in Auburn, north of Owasco Lake.
Ms. Gonzales said New York should do more to increase financial aid for college students. "It's hard to go back to college because I don't have the money to do it," she said. She said her parents were not supporting her, but her requests for financial aid were turned down because she's not old enough to apply as an independent. She's wary of taking out a loan because she's already planning to pay off a loan for a car, which she needs for work, and fears taking on too much debt.
Mark Cramer, a partner at Hiscock and Barclay in Buffalo and a resident of the city since 1986, said Mr. Spitzer "needs to get control of the public sector." Calling himself a proponent of the "Unshackle Upstate" entrepreneurial movement, Mr. Cramer said, "We're so invested in government, and at least in upstate New York, it seems like upstate government is the biggest employer there is. I pay almost half of what I earn in taxes. Half the time I'm working is to pay for public employees salaries and benefits. We could offload probably half of the public service employees and politicians in the state and we wouldn't blink an eye."
Mr. Cramer's complaint was echoed by Art Price, who manages a Roto-Rooter plumbing franchise with his family in Binghamton. He urged Mr. Spitzer "to find a way to make the business climate in New York more appealing." Two years ago, he was paying $30 a year in highway use taxes for operating one dump truck, he said.
Now, he says he's paying $600 a year. He said bureaucratic hassles are also weighing him down. "I'm spending more time doing paperwork and filling out forms than I am promoting my own business." He said he supports more restrictive campaign finance laws, "but if you don't have people who can earn a decent living, they're not going to be here anyhow, especially in Broome, where our population has been shrinking for the last 30 years."
Property taxes topped the concerns of Debra Hagmeyer, who teaches science at the Port Jefferson School District in the northern part of central Suffolk County. "It's just piling on," she said. "It's getting harder for the middle class to make it." She said, "A lot of people who are getting at retirement age can't wait to get out of here. People are leaving the island because they can go to another state and live much better."
She said Albany should also focus on lowering energy prices — another factor that she said was driving people away. Saying she's paying twice as much to fill up her home heating oil tank than she did two years ago, Ms. Hagmeyer suggested that New York offer "tax cuts" to homeowners who install solar panels on their roofs.
Judging from the results of my Friday afternoon office-based listening tour, it would seem that Mr. Bruno's criticism of the governor's priorities reflects a wider sentiment. Process reforms, such as the ones the governor is pushing, may matter, but the New Yorkers I spoke with are most concerned about the bottom line.
The point here is not to suggest that Mr. Spitzer should drop everything and listen to Mr. Bruno, who's never met a pork project that couldn't be spun as economic development. But in terms of priorities, Mr. Spitzer may be taking his eye off the ball.
While Messrs. Spitzer and Bruno sort out their differences, it's helpful to keep things in perspective. The last person I talked to was Ali al-Nasafi, who works full time at a bodega on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights.
Mr. al-Nasafi moved with his wife to America from Yemen in 1995, became a citizen in 1999, and is raising six children, who attend public school and keep him company at the store on the weekends. "I have no problems," he said. "Life is good. God bless America. It's better than home. If home was better, how come I come here?"