With The Speaker:
Giff Miller On New York
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Miller told me last week that the difference between being Speaker of the
Council and a Councilman is the difference between Major and Minor League
baseball. “It’s the same game, only the pitches are coming faster and
more people are watching.”
I’ve got a great job.
you get rid of the stresses of running a business, meeting a batch of
weekly deadlines and supervising a staff of almost fifty, I get to write a
weekly column and spend time with the decision makers that keep our
government running – like Giff Miller.
only do I get to spend time with them, it’s on my turf — and I get to
ask the questions. Friday afternoon, Giff came to chat. He spent an hour
and a half with me and Tamara talking about the budget, education,
politics and the City Council.
Michael Schenkler and
Speaker Giff Miller.
by Dee Richard
Miller, a new father for the second time, is the thirty-two year-old
speaker of the City Council. He is only the second speaker of the new
larger Council made significantly more powerful by charter revision. And
Giff Miller is guiding that Council, which he describes as “a very hard
working bunch,” after demonstrating his talent to creatively bridge the
gap between old politics and new politics.
won his job through election by the new Council by supporting, working
with and being there for many of the 38-newly elected members. He won his
job by meeting with, negotiating with and building coalitions with the
political powers of the City including Queens Democratic County Chairman
is wise beyond his 32 years. He is poised and confident and handles the
barrage of questions from this writer like an old pro with a young wry
Miller can avoid your questions with as much humor and grace as any
politician who has learned the two-step (whatever that is). Giff Miller
can tackle the toughest of questions head-on and courageously.
is no way to avoid raising taxes,” was and has been Giff Miller’s
clear message. Firmly Miller has challenged the unspoken political deal
between Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki that the dirty
“T” word — taxes — would not be discussed during Pataki’s
you really think you can change the Mayor’s mind?” I asked.
for granted what he and I both knew – there is more than a five billion
dollar (yes, billion) shortfall in the City’s budget – Giff insisted,
“We have already changed the Mayor’s mind.” At a March Citizen’s
Budget Commission speech, the Mayor had “six lines in there that we
cannot raise taxes,” Miller explained.
backing a cigarette tax, he’s got a $35 million cell phone tax; “he is
raising taxes,” the Speaker explained, becoming more animated than his
typically subdued demeanor.
drove home his point that the gap can’t be bridged by budget cuts alone:
“With only 20,000 police, if we close every library, every senior
center, every after school program and close down the department of
cultural affairs not giving any money to any cultural program, we would
still need to cut a billion dollars out of the Board of Education.”
and the Mayor have their differences. Education, clearly on top of
Miller’s list, would be the beneficiary of a Council personal income tax
surcharge to high-income earners, while the Mayor’s cuts include
Mayor was “cutting too much money in all the wrong places and not enough
in the right ones,” Miller insisted. The Council’s budget calls for
half-a-billion dollars more in spending cuts than the Mayor’s.
rattled off some examples: eliminate the Mayor’s office on contracts;
cut the City heat and power budget — “City employees can be a degree
warmer in the summer and colder in the winter time;” eliminate a Deputy
Commissioner from each agency.
Mayor’s across the board notion of cuts is wrong,” Miller asserted,
“We were sent there to prioritize and first and most importantly is our
kids’ education.” The Mayor has the “wrong mix in some places” but
Miller concluded as long as there is good faith negotiation, we will reach
a compromise. “Our responsibility is to work with one another.”
budget was clearly what was on Miller’s mind. Although he demonstrated a
command of all we discussed, he noted June 24th
is the drop-dead date to pass a budget allowing the Council enough time to
override a Mayoral veto — just in case.
once the budget is done, “we will still have to work on the budget,”
said Miller recognizing that the fiscal challenge to our city will be
school governance, Miller believes in Mayoral control and accountability
for our education system, but points to the inept scandal ridden
Department of Buildings to illustrate that Mayoral control is not a silver
bullet. However, Miller was clearly uncomfortable with the time- consuming
diversion of the governance debate and wants to “get this behind us”
in order to tackle the other, real problems of education.
says the Mayor is doing a good job but feels strongly that the Mayor is
letting the Governor off the hook in an election year. “It’s not our
job to make the Governor’s election smooth,” Miller said in reference
to requesting Albany’s approval for City tax increases. In reaction to
the suggestion that the Mayor and Governor plan to address the fiscal
crisis after the November election, he objected to the lost time, but
insisted if that were the case, “I’d like to have a stronger
understanding of the end game.”
we have a Speaker prepared to work with all levels of government, but one
that is unwillingly to quietly wait and rely on others to do the right
has supported the efforts of the Black and Latino Caucus giving them a
staff member and both caucus chairs positions on the budget negotiating
team explaining that he is following the practice of Albany.
has positioned himself as the champion of education and has taken the
debate to the Mayor. Likewise, he points to Albany seeking fiscal
responsibility, not political responses.
he effectively captures the voice of the new Council he is cautious to
protect and preserve his relationships and political institutions. When
talking politics, we see the old- school Miller.
limits: “I’ll think about it after the budget.” I was not a
supporter of term limits, explains Miller, who believes that campaign
finance has done much to level the playing field. He indicated that in the
past he felt that it would have been wrong to overturn term limits without
a referendum of the people. However, he remained elusive, claiming to have
not discussed or thought about the issue, avoiding it during the budgetary
walked the line on use of staff and public funds for campaign purposes.
“It is a delicate balance to strike... It is important to report to
constituents what you are doing.” Refusing to condemn prior abuses of
public funds by elected officials, he saw no reason “to go there.”
reference to the public losing confidence in their elected officials,
Miller explained away the instances of corruption with “we all live in
an imperfect world.”
it is understandable that the chosen leader of the Council, which embodies
the new politics of this City, chose not to attack or criticize the
City’s old politics. It was that old politics that enabled the bright
Councilman from the Upper East Side to rise to his position of power while
still in his early thirties.
each response was accompanied with a wry humorous comment indicating that
the product of the system knew it has flaws. His ability to sarcastically
mock made his old politics much more palatable.
has chosen the path of fighting for our City – which he “loves deeply,
especially at this time,” – our kids and for the priorities that
matter to the people. He has chosen not to pick up the mantle of reform
but to get along in the system that raised him.
Miller, who said he feels a sense of opportunity to contribute something
to New York, is term limited out of office after next year. That is,
unless he and his Council find a way to change the term limit law.
Nov. 6, the day before Election Day, Giff Miller turns 33 years old. He is
thoughtful and poised beyond his 33 years. He is a bright and articulate
spokesperson for the people of our City. Anyone who has risen to such a
position of influence in his first 33 years offers the City a future of
leadership for decades to come.
ducked the question about running for Mayor with the words, “I just
became Speaker.” The fire in his eyes gave a different answer. Giff
Miller and New York City will be inseparable for perhaps another lifetime.
Hartman contributed to this column.
my chat last month with Comptroller Bill Thompson, the Comptroller was
critical of the Bush administration’s refusal to reimburse the City for
operating expenses when the budget shortfall was a result of the terrorist
attack. I asserted my objection to his criticism since he had not
requested such reimbursement. Although Thompson said he was fairly certain
that the Mayor made the request, he was going to investigate the matter.
week, I received an exclusive copy of a letter dated May 30th
from the Comptroller to President Bush and was informed by the Comptroller
staff that this letter was a direct response to my suggestion that a
request for operating funds should preceed any criticism of the White
House for not being forthcoming with such assistance.
the letter excerpted below, the Comptroller demonstrated to this writer
that he can both take a suggestion and fight for our City.
New Yorkers deeply appreciate the support you have provided to New York
City in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center
know that I speak for all our citizens in expressing gratitude for your
leadership in this time of crisis.
the tragic loss of life can never be replaced, we remain strong and
committed to rebuilding our City.
You have been steadfast in ensuring the federal government’s
commitment of financial support to assist the City in its historic cleanup
and construction efforts.
am concerned, however, that the loss of City operating revenues has not
been similarly addressed.
we estimate that the City’s revenue collections have fallen by $800
million in the current year and will be reduced further by $2.2 billion in
Fiscal Year 2003 due to the impact of the terrorist attacks.
In addition, while FEMA is expected to reimburse the City for
nearly $1.7 billion in direct costs, there remains an additional $500
million in expenditures that appear to be ineligible for FEMA funding.
City is taking important steps to address these circumstances.
Last week, the City borrowed $1.5 billion to meet operating
even with such extraordinary actions, the City confronts a growing deficit
through the next four projected years.
As we face renewed terrorist threats, New Yorkers look to you for
guidance and critical support.
Federal government must compensate New Yorkers for lost revenues directly
sustained because of the Sept. 11th
attack by providing additional assistance in the form of unrestricted
federal aid. Your
support will help restore vital service to our City and will serve as a
signal that an attack upon one, is an attack upon all.
C. Thompson, Jr.”
by Dom Nunziato
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@queenspress.com