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For real ethics changes in Albany Commission should act to tighten rules on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers

Credit disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff for something positive: He's scaring the willies out of Albany.

Here's the deal: The indictments of Abramoff, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and others on a national level are empowering reformers in Albany to force ethics changes. The state Lobbying Commission is debating a plan to sharply restrict -- to $75 per year for each legislator from each lobby -- what lawmakers may accept.

Right now, the law is conveniently interpreted to mean legislators can accept $75 per event. That means three separate meals and a sporting event in one day, individually meeting the limit, collectively exceed it and routinely so. In Albany, where committees are toothless and votes come prepledged to legislative leaders, there's much time for wining and dining.

Consider the attitude from the executive director of the agency, one of the few outfits in Albany that's worked consistently for ethical government. "If the public official wants the pancakes, pay for the pancakes," said David Grandeau. Talk about a revolutionary concept.

Why the changes? Commission member Andrew Celli laid it right out: The public deserves to "have the confidence that legislators are not being corrupted."

Washington has its infamous K Street lobbying section, and while Albany has no similar snake-dwelling Garden of Eden, the same revolving door swirls there with legislators or staffers becoming lobbyists of their friends and former colleagues.

Do taxpayers care? You bet. A Zogby poll commissioned by New York Public Interest Research Group and Common Cause showed that by more than a 4-1 ratio, New Yorkers want to ban gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers. If that's the case, then now's the time for voters to make their preference clear to the commission, which didn't vote this week on the tougher limits. If you want to see Albany respond to you, the voter and taxpayer, lobby the Lobbying Commission for tighter rules.

This is an enormous opportunity to force reform in Albany. The measure's not perfect and lobbyists and legislators have already crafted loopholes, one of which News reporter Tom Precious detailed in a story Thursday. But this is a big step.

Thanks, Jack.

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