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SOME QUESTIONS FOR OUR LEGISLATORS

It was a full agenda for the State Assembly in the early hours of last Wednesday: Not only did it make a mess of the soon-to-expire Health Care Reform Act, but it did the same to the soon-to-expire lobbying law.

In the latter, it followed the example of the State Senate, which earlier passed its own inadequate version of a new lobbying law, though the competing bills are disingenuous in different ways. Together, though, they describe a state government that has no real interest in reforming the ways its officials allow themselves to be wined and dined and otherwise seduced by the lobbyists who work the State Capitol.

Ask yourself these questions and see if you can come up with an innocent explanation:

Why would an elected official with his constituents' interests at heart oppose a ban on gifts worth more than $25 from any lobbyist? The Senate bill would lower the current $75 limit to $25, but Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Gov. George Pataki won't hear of it.

The Assembly bill maintains the higher limit, allowing lobbyists with business before the Legislature to treat lawmakers to expensive dinners, even the night before a vote. Why wouldn't a diligent legislator want protection from the undeniable appearance that he is entertaining a bribe? Anyone have an answer?

Why restrict the value of gifts that can be given to a legislator and still leave wide open the back door of unrestricted gifts to the legislator's spouse? And why allow lawmakers to accept free plane tickets, hotel accommodations and food from a trade group's annual meeting, attaching only the flimsiest of restrictions -- they have to speak or sit on a panel during the session? The Senate bill leaves those broad avenues of legalized bribery clear and unobstructed. Anyone wonder why?

Why continue to allow fund-raising while the Legislature is in session? The vast majority of people contributing to those daily events are lobbyists, since constituents tend to be at home working rather than prowling the Capitol, cash in hand. Any explanation for that?

Why worry about a law requiring lobbyists to report their attempts to influence the awarding of state contracts? The Senate bill would impose that restriction, but Silver and Pataki can't abide the thought. They say it's enough that the law covers lobbying on permits or regulations. What are they worried about?

While neither bill goes far enough, both measures contain some improvements over the existing sham of a law. Shockingly enough, though, they don't share those stronger provisions, which means that they are less likely to be adopted.

Albany's failure to approve meaningful lobbying reform comes on the heels of twin embarrassments for the Legislature. Most recent was last month's disclosure that Philip Morris spent vastly more than it had reported in state lobbying. And before that, barely a year ago, the same lawmakers who cannot pass a budget on time awarded themselves a gluttonous 38 percent pay raise, and followed that feast with a 19 percent increase in their daily room-and-board payments. All that money, and they still can't tell the lobbyists no.

Democratic Assemblyman Alexander Grannis has proposed a meaningful, stringent lobbying reform bill, but Silver has buried it. It is co-sponsored by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo, who voted against last week's joke bill. So did William Parment of Jamestown.

The Legislature needs to extend the existing statute, then invite public testimony about the need for a lobbying law with some starch in it. If they can't bring themselves to do that, they should at least combine the best of the Senate and Assembly bills and call it a start. Unfortunately, this is New York and neither will happen.

Anyone wonder why?

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