Robert L. Schulz doesn't fit most people's concept of an "activist."
He's not interested in ideology. His background is primarily business, not politics, including a master's of business administration and experience as a consultant for a major Wall Street investment bank.
But as far as the bureaucrats in Albany are concerned, he is just as nettlesome as an angry demonstration in front of the governor's mansion.
Mr. Schulz, who eschews the antigovernment label, has filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the government of New York State, its Legislature, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, and Comptroller Edward V. Regan on the premise that these officials misuse taxpayers' money.
For the past three years, Mr. Schulz, a 52-year-old semiretired engineer without a law degree, has kept the state busy by challenging the constitutionality of several bond acts, officials' deficit-plugging techniques, and the state budget itself.
Today, Mr. Schulz, president of the 200-member All-County Taxpayers Association, will battle New York on three cases: the state's recent sale of $531 million of deficit notes, the bonding authority of the Local Government Assistance Corp., and the 21st Century Environmental Quality Bond Act of 1990.
The cases are scheduled to appear before the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, the second highest court in New York. The five-judge panel will hear arguments today and rule in the next week or so.
Legal finance pundits and municipal market executives say the odds are against Mr. Schulz winning any of the cases, largely because well-established legal precedent favors the state. The New York attorney general's office, which is representing the state, also predicts a victory, either at the appellate division level or in the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals.
"He's certainly keeping our legal department busy." said Brad Kelly, a press officer for the state Budget Division. "But we think our actions are in the best interest of all New Yorkers and we are confident that we will prevail."
Still, many observers as well as some state officials are fearful that Mr. Schulz, through his constant appeals of court decisions and the new cases he contemplates, is quickly developing a keen understanding of state constitutional law. It is just a matter of time, they say, before he scores a major victory that could seriously damage the state's credit rating as well as its access to the credit markets.
"Each time he litigates, he gets smarter," said Austin V. Koenen, a managing director at Morgan Stanley & Co., the lead underwriter for the last Local Government Assistance Corp. issue in March. "It's like a learning experience for him. And if you swing the bat enough, you're going to hit one out of the park no matter who is pitching."
Mr. Schulz, speaking in a telephone interview from his Glens Falls, N.Y., home, brushed aside predictions that his chances of a single victory today are slim. He said he is confident that his arguments are based on a fair reading of the state constitution, and that sooner or later he will be vindicated in the court system.
"I know the law and the constitution," Mr. Schulz said. "This state has engaged in too many fiscal gimmicks, and their deceit is deep. I think the courts are ruing the day they ever started hearing these arguments."
Mr. Schulz began his improbable legal career in 1979, when he opposed a local sewer project. Up to that point, Mr. Schulz had worked as a mechanical and environmental engineer for General Electric and a consultant in the nascent recycling industry.
Queensbury, N.Y., and Warren County, N.Y., planned to build a sewer pipe from the Lake George area, where he lives, 33 miles west of the Hudson River. Town officials said the plan would help protect Lake George from environmental damage. But Mr. Schulz, one of the area residents who would have been linked up to the system, disagreed.
Challenging the absence of an environmental review for the project, Mr. Schulz said the existing septic did not harm the environment, and he charged that the plan was nothing more than a screen to use taxpayers' money to promote unnecessary development.
Mr. Schulz, who said he does all his own legal research and pays for the expense, decided to sue the town. He said the case forced him to divide his time between his consulting business and a reading of the state law and the state constitution.
Since then, Mr. Schulz said he has never doubted his ability to challenge the legal establishment. "I can read and comprehend," he said." And I can certainly argue the case."
In 1982, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Mr. Schulz, blocking the development of the sewer system. His legal career was on its way.
Mr. Schulz, who has worked as a consultant in a joint venture with the public finance department at what was then Prudential-Bache Securities as well as a consultant to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, has achieved other victories.
In 1990, he went to court to prevent the state from using advertising to help gain voter approval for the 21st Century Environmental Quality Bond Act. In November 1990, the Court of Appeals ordered the state not to use a pamphlet to promote the bond act. That month, the issue was rejected by voters.
Mr. Schulz is still suing the state over the bond act because he said it secretly planned to use the financing to balance its budget. "We hope the court will make sure future administrations do not package up a bond act the way they did," he said. "It was deceitful." The case is among those being heard today by the appellate division.
This February, New York State Supreme Court Justice Lawrence E. Kahn granted Mr. Schulz's request for a temporary restraining order to block a $334 million bond sale for Local Government Assistance Corp., which was established two years ago to help the state end its yearly spring borrowing.
The order expired almost a month later, and then Judge Joseph Harris dismissed the case, prompting Mr. Schulz's appeal.
In April, Justice Kahn said the state's latest sale of $531 million in deficit notes was unconstitutional largely because the state issued the securities known as tax and revenue anticipation notes before the adoption of its 1993 fiscal year budget. The state appealed the case.
The last two cases, and a third involving New York's sale of Attica Prison to a state agency to balance its 1991 fiscal year budget, epitomize Mr. Schulz's legal philosophy. Mr. Schulz said all three cases violate sections of the state constitution, which stipulate that bond deals such as these require taxpayer approval.
Specifically, Mr. Schulz is attempting to overturn a series of cases in the 1970s the state has relied upon for the legal precedent necessary to complete these deals. Basically, the state says that the cases involving Leon E. Wein, a Brooklyn Law School professor, provide the Legislature with the legal authority to appropriate debt and bypass voter approval.
Mr. Schulz said the state's use of the Wein decisions is flawed. For example, he said one of the Wein decisions gave a separate state corporation -- the New York City Stabilization Reserve Corp. -- the legal authority to issue debt as a gift to the city. The corporation was established to help bail out New York City during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s.
But Mr. Schulz argued that LGAC is the equivalent to the State of New York, not separate, and "you can't give something to yourself," he said.
Several legal observers said they failed to see merit in Mr. Schulz's argument.
"Everybody I speak to says his cases will be thrown out at the Court of Appeals level," said Kenneth W. Bond, a managing partner at Sullivan, Donovan, Bond & Bonner. As far as LGAC is concerned, Mr. Bond said the corporation "is a state agency, created by the state Legislature." As a result, it has legal precedent to issue debt.
However, these same experts -- including State Comptroller Regan, who is named as a defendant in several cases -- agree that Mr. Schulz is gaining the experience necessary to eventually gain a victory.
"I am sure the state will prevail" today, Mr. Regan said in a speech during the seventh annual Empire State Report Public Finance Conference on May 21.