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Actual lobby reform in Albany Meal limit provision is a symbolic yet real first step to fix the state

Limiting meals and gifts to $75 a year each will not change how business gets done in Albany. That's by campaign money. Yet meaningful reform came this week not from handcuffed politicians, but from an appointed board; and the improvement contains loopholes lobbyists and politicians will exploit.

But it's almost spring. Reform has bloomed in Albany and there's hope of more to come. The Temporary State Commission on Lobbying approved new rules Thursday that forbid lobbyists from giving a lawmaker more than $75 in gifts a year.

New York's Common Cause, no shrinking violet in the efforts to reform state government into something approaching a representative form, called this "a sea change."

Here's the second wave: The rules also apply to lobbyists trying to influence local government officials -- including mayors, agency heads, council members and members of industrial development agency boards and public authorities -- in communities with more than 50,000 residents. That's a bonus that covers this region's heavyweights.

Paul Shechtman, chairman of the state lobbying agency, stated the logical, which nonetheless sounds revolutionary in the Albany context: "It will not be the end of the world if lawmakers have to pay for themselves." How needed is this reform? Nearly 2,600 clients spent $149 million on 4,264 lobbyists to influence legislation last year, the agency said, which is likely only the reported extent of lobbyist largess.

What's next? Gov. George E. Pataki promptly renewed his call for legislators to adopt a law banning all gifts by lobbyists and special interests. Such a ban would help, he said, "foster greater confidence in state government." He's right.

According to New York Public Interest Research Group's Blair Horner, lobbyists will now be tempted to shift to "campaign fund-raising dinners" to circumvent the meal restriction. With a loophole-riddled campaign finance law coupled with lax enforcement by the Board of Elections, such dinners could become frequent. Pataki should make good on his word. But this step is worth declaring a victory over.

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