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Another Voice: Assembly speaker wields far too much power

By Michael P. Kearns

When the leader of a “respected body” is convicted on seven felony counts of corruption and fraud, it is time for the people to question the premise that it is a “respected body.” The New York State Assembly is sick and in need of healing.

The theme of unbridled power that ends tragically is a tired one. At times like these, elected officials end up wringing their collective hands, asking “if only something could be done to prevent this in the future.” The proverbial time for hand wringing and talk is over, the time for common-sense reform is now.

The problem is an old one: How do we curb and redirect the potential for overly ambitious leadership when ambition is hard-wired into the notion of politics? When power is concentrated in a single person or office, corruption becomes an unavoidable corollary. The solution to the puzzle can be found in sharing, balancing and dispersing concentrated power in the form of checks and balances.

The Assembly’s dysfunction originates in its internal rules, from which the speaker has the power to grant pay raises through committee chairmanships, control who becomes staff or rank-and-file workers of what should be independent committees and control calling a bill out of committee and onto the full Assembly floor for a vote.

If a committee chairman disagrees with the speaker, the chairman can find himself or herself stripped of his or her committee and the accompanying pay increase or have staff stripped by the speaker. With the power to control staff and committee appointments, the speaker controls what is researched in committee and what comes out of committee for a vote on the floor of the Assembly.

Corruption and criminal behavior have followed from this concentration of power and ability to control members and their votes. Seceding this power to the committees is long overdue.

It is unconscionable that Sheldon Silver’s legal fees for defending his criminal conduct will be paid by his campaign donors. He also will be receiving a state pension courtesy of New York State taxpayers.

There has been $4 million in self-dealing that we know about, and no financial cost to the perpetrator of the fraud. This is the product of the rules and laws that the speaker’s office controls.

The need for common-sense laws, rules and ethics reform to prevent such abuse is manifest. I will again advocate for the adoption of the Brennan Center rules reform, ethics reform and the passage of bill A.7704 by Assemblyman David Buchwald, D-White Plains, which will deny a state pension to politicians convicted of felonies. Voices in support of such measures are medicine for this ailing legislative body.

Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, represents the 142nd District in the Assembly.