State lawmakers, who love to talk about good government during election season only to suffer a lapse of memory when they get to Albany, have a chance to loosen the grip of special interests on the lawmaking process. All they have to do is give up expensive dinners, costly and hard-to-get tickets to entertainment and sporting events and some campaign contributions -- all provided by lobbyists.
They can make this sacrifice by supporting the Integrity in Government Act, a bill now before the Assembly and State Senate, which would tighten lobbying laws that haven't substantially been altered in two decades.
The Legislature had been prepared to simply extend the current, weak law, which is due to expire this year, for another four years. However, a story in the New York Times detailing how Philip Morris lavished expensive gifts on lawmakers in an effort to defeat tough anti-smoking measures embarrassed the Legislature's leaders into calling for lobbying reform.
New York's current lobbying law is a sham. It is essentially a disclosure procedure based on the honor system. And there's a reason that those two words -- lobbying and honor -- aren't often used in the same breath.
The state's 22-year-old "temporary" Lobby Commission has no ability to audit filings, no power to independently verify lobbying activity and little power to punish. It's limit of $5,000 for fines borders on the ridiculous. What kind of fear does a $5,000 fine put into the hearts of Philip Morris executives?
Comparisons with other states and Congress show the need for reform here. Half the states and both houses of Congress significantly limit the ability of lobbyists to ply legislators with food, tickets and cash. In addition, most other states give their lobby-oversight agencies the power to audit and punish, including the revocation of lobbying licenses.
New York does none of those things. The New York Public Interest Research Group surveyed 50 states to evaluate their lobbying laws. It gave New York a failing grade.
Here are some of the things the integrity in government act now before the Legislature would accomplish:
Make permanent the Lobby Commission and give it audit power over lobbyists.
Allow the commission to revoke the registration of lobbyists who violate the law.
Ban lobbyists' campaign contributions to legislators and the executive branch during the legislative session. During the rest of the year, lobbyists would be limited to $250 gifts per lawmaker per election cycle.
Lobbying reform in Albany is way overdue. Legislators ought to enact the Integrity in Government Act, and if they don't, voters should remember who really is for good government and who is not.