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Editorials that matter: statewide editorial thrashing, led by NCEW members, gets results at New York legislature.

With New York State's government fast approaching its twenty-first year without a timely state budget, it seemed to NCEW board member Peter Kohler and former president Fred Fiske to be an appropriate time for a legislative seminar for editorial writers who opine about state issues. The state's governmental processes had, after all, just been labeled as dysfunctional in a report by the respected Brennan Center of the New York University Law School.

But participants in the seminar, scheduled ten days after the start of the state's fiscal year, were in for a surprise: The governor and legislature were able to resolve their differences and agree on a spending plan in time to meet the constitutional deadline--for the first time in two decades.

According to several government observers who spoke to the group, that outcome was in large measure a tribute to the state's cadre of editorial writers, who had mounted so much pressure on the lawmakers that they had little choice but to respond.

"Because of the public thrashing they were getting, the legislators felt they had to do something," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. Lise Bang-Jensen of public television's "Inside Albany" program offered her congratulations to the editorial writers: "I think you got under their skin" she said. Lawmakers are "unbelievably sensitive to anything written about them," said Bob Ward of the business-oriented Public Policy Institute. But, Horner added, "It's not editorials alone, but editorials that point out something so striking and outrageous that it can't be ignored."

But for all the plaudits, some observers worried that news organizations were being too credulous about the budget success. There was, they said, so much more to be done. "Don't be afraid to support a constitutional convention" to make real change in the workings of state government, Ward told the assembled sixteen editorial writers and editors, while other speakers offered their lists of needed changes in the legislative process.

The seminar was put together by an ad hoc group of NCEW members from several papers across the state, assisted by Sherid Virnig from NCEW headquarters. Sessions were spread over a day and a half and were generously hosted by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. They began on a Sunday afternoon with two panels, one giving an "Albany Reporters' Eye View," and the other providing critical perspectives of legislative observers with a variety of policy and political perspectives.

Monday's day-long session kicked off with a discussion of the aggressive editorial campaign for reform mounted by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. It also drew visits by legislative leaders from both houses and both major parties, as well as from governor George Pataki.

In response to the legislature's budgetary dilatoriness, Rochester's Jim Lawrence pointed out, his paper and at least two other New York newspapers withheld endorsements of legislative candidates before the previous statewide election. At his paper, "the community roared with approvalS' Lawrence said, with a deluge of letters to the editor. The editorial page followed up by printing a coupon for readers who supported reform to fill out and return. The paper received about twenty-five hundred, and sent copies to lawmakers and the governor. Then it convened an editorial board meeting in Albany to further demonstrate its commitment to spurring change. The paper also put clickable e-mail links to lawmakers on its website, to assist citizens in making their opinions known.

At the final Monday session, Jeremy Creelan, the Brennan Center analyst who authored the report branding state governmental processes as broken, played down the importance of the timely state budget and urged editorialists to apply the momentum they had generated on the issue to broader matters of governance. "Editorials are the single father of reform" he said, and encouraged state papers to work together to keep the public's focus on specific positive changes.

The opinion writers attending the sessions had differing degrees of background on the issues discussed, but most seemed to share the sense that the sessions more than met their expectations and needs. As Theresa Keegan told her editor, John Penney, on returning to work at the Poughkeepsie Journal, "It was like NCEW created it for me."

Which is just what session organizers had intended.

Phineas Fiske is a retired senior editorial writer for Newsday. E-mail
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Author:Fiske, Phineas
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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