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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

State’s role in local laws puzzling

If I were a local politician, I can think of few things I would hate more than waiting for state lawmakers to approve or reject legislation affecting my community.

Each year, municipalities throughout New York spend the legislative session wondering whether the Legislature will grant them permission to do some pretty mundane and basic things — install red-light cameras, lower the local speed limit, maintain a parking-permit system.

Whatever one might think of such initiatives, they seem like matters that should be decided at the local level, by people who understand the community.

Instead, we’re forced to wait and see whether the state Legislature thinks Albany should be allowed to continue its 2-year-old parking-permit system, or whether New York City can lower its speed limit to 25 miles per hour. Schenectady is considering installing red-light cameras, but they can’t do it unless the state Legislature signs off on the idea. The city of Albany, which has requested permission to obtain the cameras, was awaiting word Wednesday on whether its wish would be granted.

In New York, local governments have the power to adopt and amend laws.

But there are restrictions, and when a community wishes to do something that is inconsistent with state law, it must send a “home rule message” indicating its support for the measure to the Legislature. The Legislature must then decide whether to pass the special law.

This cumbersome process explains why it took about two decades for Albany to create a parking-permit system, despite broad support from city residents. Without fail, the Common Council would send a home rule message to the Legislature, asking for permission to develop a permit system for its congested downtown neighborhoods. But the measure was opposed by state workers’ unions, and typically died during session.

Until 2010, when the Legislature finally decided to give Albany permission to create a daytime residential permit system.

But there was a catch: The state allowed the city to create a two-year pilot program, which means that the program is up for renewal this year. And on Wednesday, the fate of the program was unclear.

I live within one of the downtown parking-permit zones, and life would surely go on if the parking-permit program expired in February 2015. But my feeling is that it should be up to city residents to determine the fate of the program, rather than the whims of the state Legislature. A lot of work went into designing the city’s parking-permit program — it wasn’t just thrown together in a matter of weeks. And it would be an insult to the residents of Albany if state lawmakers just quietly killed it with no explanation.

Another bill that this week passed both the Senate and Assembly would allow small cities to hold night courts — something Mayor Gary McCarthy has been pushing for. He has said that Schenectady City Court is under “some serious stress,” and that he would rather use an existing courtroom in the evening than build an entirely new courtroom.

This makes a certain amount of sense, but the Office of Court Administration does not allow city courts to have evening hours. The bill that passed the Legislature allows cities to request permission from the OCA to hold night court. So even if the bill is signed by the governor, there’s still no guarantee that cities will be able to organize their court systems as they see fit.

On most home-rule items, I often wrack my brain trying to come up with reasons for why the state should have final say. Though if an item is controversial or unusual, I can understand why it might merit legislative attention.

For instance, it’s possible New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was overreaching when he sought permission to establish a higher minimum wage in New York City. Perhaps the minimum wage is something that should be decided on a statewide basis.

But I really don’t understand why New York City can’t determine its own speed limit.

And if the bill fails, I suspect it will have more to do with Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ feelings for de Blasio than anything else.

“I don’t know if it will be on the floor. It is certainly one of the things we will be discussing,” Skelos told reporters earlier this week. “I know how important it is to Mayor de Blasio and he’s certainly one of my best friends.”

Local politicians often make poor decisions.

But so do state politicians.

And when the Legislature is micromanaging whether Albany can have red-light cameras or whether Schenectady can have night-time court hours, it might be time to make some adjustments.

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