Budgets, Bills and Ballplayers What Does the Erie County Legislature Actually Do? By Jeremiah van Rensselaer

As campaign season rears its ugly head again, and we are soon to be inundated with candidates claiming they will 'fight for us.' With so much at stake in the Erie County Legislature this season, I ponder a very relevant question: What does the Legislature do?

Yes, I know what a legislature's purpose is - a means of separating powers and so on - within the Democratic form of government. But, literally, what does the Erie County version actually do?

Recently, I read a very well reasoned analysis in Artvoice by a local blogger Paul Wolf that shed some light on the answer.

Erie County has a legislature made up of 11 members paid $42,500 per year. The chair and majority and minority leaders get a bump to $52,000 and $47,500, respectively, for what is considered a part-time job.

All told, the Legislature has a budget of approximately $3.2 million, which, interestingly enough, is $145,000 more than in 2011- with four fewer members -according to Buffalo News Columnist Rod Watson.

The County Legislature's powers are somewhat different than those you traditionally think of with a legislative body. You know, making laws or the 'power of the purse.' In Erie County, this is not the case.

Legislators actually have no power to initiate spending - this is delegated to the County Executive via resolution proposal. Instead, they only have the power to approve the County Executive's request for spending.

Essentially, spending powers have flip-flopped: the executive proposes spending, while the legislature has veto power over it. In fact, this is the legislature's biggest job. Mostly, resolutions are passed with little to no discussion. The ones that do elicit discussions tend to be political footballs with both sides sticking strongly to predetermined talking points. Votes go down on partisan lines.

For the most part, it's kind of like that class you took in college where 50 percent of your grade was just 'showing up.' The rest was class participation qualified by proving you were awake by piping up to interject or ask a question once and a while.

Not surprisingly, Erie County legislators excel at class participation.

While the legislature does have the ability to propose and pass its own resolutions, most are generally non-actionable and purely symbolic. Read this as: they do nothing.

Wolf noted that, since 2010, the Erie County Legislature considered 391 of these toothless resolutions. Almost all honored individuals and community organizations. You know; the kind where an Eagle Scout or a local couple's 50th anniversary is recognized. (Complete with photo-op and press release, I'm sure!)

Lastly, the legislature does have the power to create County law through a Local Law process with several layers of approval by the legislators and county executive. Public hearings are smattered throughout. While its difficulty only really lies in finding an issue that is actually actionable by the legislature, it is rather tedious and time consuming - work adjectives politicians avoid like the plague.

According to Wolf, only six of these local laws have been passed in the last three years. This seems comically low, considering a legislature is defined as a body that passes laws.

In fairness, the Legislature is currently considering a new Local Law that tackles our own localized immigration issue, or non-issue, which aims to protect Erie County government's workforce from infiltration by adjacent counties. According to the bill's author, Legislator Joe Lorigo, there are only about 50 non-Erie County residents working for the County - this out of about 5,000 employees. And, get this; those 50 employees are all grandfathered in and unaffected by the law.

So, all of this time and effort is to stop maybe five or ten nonresidents from snatching Erie County government jobs over the next decade? Sign me up!

So what does the Erie County Legislature do? Actually, not so much.

Are our expectations too high? Possibly.

I consider politics analogous to baseball - our other national past time. There is the federal government, akin to the major leagues with its collection of superstars and then there are proceeding lower and more local levels of government akin to the Minors, where unproven talent waits for their opportunity to get 'called up.'

If state government is like Triple-A ball, then county government (and more specifically the county legislature) is probably a Single-A Short Season like the NY-Penn League. There might be some incredibly raw talent, but by-and-large it's a collection of 'never-beens' or 'never-wills' living out the few fleeting moments of a career derailed before it even begins.

The players might dream big, but they just don't have the skill to advance.

The County Legislature can't do it all and, by Charter, the body is limited in its powers. Still, they can do something to justify their part-time paycheck that nearly equals Erie County's median household income. SOMETHING.

If Erie County Legislators are intent on continuing to phone it in, might I suggest one last grand gesture? Please put in motion a second downsizing referendum, but this time cut it to zero. Put that $3.1 million into something that actually benefits county residents - or give it back.

Comments? Please don't hesitate to contact me at jeremiah.van.rensselaer@gmail.com.

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