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Editorial: State legislators should be called to account for unethical behavior

Lawmakers could have had pay raises last year if they had been willing to negotiate new ethics rules governing their conduct. They couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Instead, the leader of the Senate granted unethical pay increases to a handful of lawmakers who did nothing to earn them.

And so it goes in one of the nation’s most corrupt state governments. Either state legislators actually don’t get it or they just don’t care. Neither is tolerable.

As much as anything, that is the terrible lesson of the decision by Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan to award what may be illegal stipends to a handful of favored lawmakers, including Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma. It’s not just the inappropriate pay increases – cavalierly offered at taxpayers’ expense – but the hard fact that Albany is impermeable to ethics reforms. Challenge lawmakers about ethical appearances or concerns, and it bounces off like rain from a just-waxed car.

Why is that? Is it just greed, or is it that when public officials swim in those foul waters, they inevitably risk becoming polluted themselves? Why else would Flanagan not understand the chance he was taking in offering undeserved pay increases, and why would the senators they benefited so willingly accept them?

The problem with the raises is straightforward. By law, they can go only to committee leaders, but Flanagan provided them to the vice chairmen of several committees for reasons that amount to something like: “Because I wanted to.” That’s the Albany culture.

It’s a distant cousin of the conduct that led former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver into federal court, where they were convicted of felonies. No, the cases are not comparable in their severity, but they all demonstrate the sense of entitlement that pervades New York State government.

At this point, it should be obvious that lawmakers won’t do much of anything to reform state government without voters holding an electoral gun to their heads. They have no interest in improving the ethics of the place, because the existing patterns serve their interests too well. Why close the LLC loophole, which allows virtually unlimited donations from businesses, even though it corrupts confidence in the government? Why reduce the limits on donations in general? Why limit outside income? So what if it kicks open the door to conflicts of interest?

And, now, why follow the law on stipends? Lawmakers are allowed to do what they want, right? Especially with U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara run out of office by President Trump.

It’s not good enough. New Yorkers deserve better, but they won’t get it until they start making lawmakers pay a price for their presumptions.

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