Sunday, May 04, 2003

I love (Greater) New York

There's always been political tension between New York City and New York State over money. The city produces it, while the state spends it. City leaders are forced to grovel before Albany just to recover what city residents pay in state taxes for local services. It's an annoying argument that never shows signs of being resolved. But a group of New York City councilmembers think they have a solution—secession:

City Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr. has introduced a bill to explore the city's secession from the state. He says it offers the city a way to become less dependent on a state that takes $3.5 billion more each year from taxpayers than it returns.

The quixotic notion got a hearing before a City Council committee yesterday. Several speakers addressed Mr. Vallone's bill, which would create a commission that would examine secession and decide whether to hold a referendum on the matter.

"Every day Albany gives us another reason to just go our way," Mr. Vallone said. The latest example, he said, is the budget being drafted in Albany, which he called "another sham."

"They're giving us the ability to increase taxes on New York City residents at a time when we already pay too much in taxes."

Nobody's holding their breath for this idea, yet it does have its merits. An independent New York City—dubbed "Greater New York" in Vallone's bill—would likely enjoy greater governmental efficiency. But whether this translates into lower taxes and a greater protection of individual rights (remember those?) remains to be seen. Given the New York City's government current inability to avoid micromanaging the lives of its citizens, I'm far from convinced that Greater New York would be all that greater. Paul Blair, for instance, points out that the city's complaints about being exploited by the state have a certain irony:

Here again, the left is arguing on our terms. If people keep thinking like that, sooner or later they will reach the conclusion that the government shouldn't be used to sacrifice anybody to anybody else.

Then there's the political nightmare a serious secession movement would bring. Dividing a state in two isn't as easy as it sounds. First city voters would have to pass a referendum. Then there would be a commission to study the question and hold hearings. Next the Commission would propose a state constitution and submit it to the voters. If that's approved, then the New York State legislature would have to adopt legislation permitting the city to "disengage and separate" from New York. Then Congress would have to admit the new state. Then of course there's the technical matter of actually separating the two states. Just drawing the new border with chalk could take years, especially if the job is given to union contractors!

Keep in mind, even if every New York City resident votes for secession, the rest of the state retains veto power. Article IV of the Constitution commands "no new states shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other state" without the consent of the affected state's legislature. The only exception to this rule was West Virginia, which was admitted under constitutionally dubious circumstances in 1863. West Virginia of course was originally part of Virginia. After Virginia seceded, a number of western Virginia counties opposed to that secession formed their own government, which claimed authority over all Virginia. After everyone realized the Civil War was going to take awhile, President Lincoln and the Radical Republican Congress (not to be confused with today's Extremist Republican Congress) finally decided to acknowledge political reality and admit West Virginia as a separate state.

There are two other cases of states being formed from existing states. The first was Vermont, which following its acquisition by Britain in the 1760s found itself constantly claimed in the name of New York and New Hampshire. The Revolutionary War didn't settle the problem, and Vermont actually managed to obtain its independence for awhile, functioning as an independent republic until becoming the 14th state.

The other example—and the only case of peaceful intrastate secession—was Maine. Originally part of Massachusetts, Maine residents continually longed for their own state government. After five referendums, Maine voters finally petitioned the legislature for the right to secede. Massachusetts acquiesced, and Maine was permitted to draft a constitution for Congress' consideration. As it turned out, Congress was more than happy to admit Maine as part of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, under which Missouri was admitted a slave state, while Maine was admitted as a free state, thus maintaining the fragile balance of power within the union.

Presumably, such balancing won't be a problem should Greater New York face admission. After all, the non-city part of New York is staunchly Republican, while the five boroughs are staunchly Democrat. Politically, they'd cancel each other out.

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