By Susan Lerner
There’s a solution to Albany’s culture of corruption so graphically revealed at the corruption trials of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former President Pro Tem of the State Senate Dean Skelos: Require state legislators to work only for the people they are elected to serve. New York’s Legislature should, by law, be full time. We need to ban or severely restrict any outside earned income for legislators, just as we do for members of Congress.
In truth, we pretty much have a full-time Legislature already. More than two-thirds of current state lawmakers who filed financial disclosure forms in 2014 reported either no outside employment income or employment income that did not exceed $20,000. The National Conference of State Legislatures lists New York as one of three states where legislators spend more than 80 percent of their time being legislators.
It’s surprising that the myth of a part-time “citizen Legislature” – attractive and romantic as it may be – still persists in a state with an annual budget of $150 billion and an economy and society more complex and diverse than that of many nations. Of course we want people from many different backgrounds, jobs and experiences to run for legislative seats. But that doesn’t mean the Legislature should be part time. After all, legislators bring the knowledge gained from the first 20 to 30 years of their professional careers to bear, whether they are currently employed in that career or not.
But pretending that being a legislator is a part-time job and not paying a commensurate full-time salary makes it harder to attract people from different backgrounds. Who, other than the wealthy, the self-employed or lawyers, really has a flexible enough work schedule that hey or she can be in Albany two to four days a week over six months?
Furthermore, how many nurses, construction workers, small business owners or teachers can support themselves while they undergo the rigors of a political campaign to gain that supposedly part-time job? Providing public funding of election campaigns would help diversify the Legislature, but a raise in salary and tough restrictions on outside income are needed as well.
It simply isn’t realistic to expect our elected representatives to pay detailed attention to the issues they should be addressing, provide excellent constituent service, be active and present in the communities they serve and hold a second job. As the jury in the Silver trial so clearly indicated, the public expects legislators to work for the public and not their own self-interest. In finding Silver guilty, the jury recognized the inherent conflict of interest facing legislators in trying to serve two masters – the public and their own financial interest.
Eliminate the need for outside income and eliminate the pretext under which such corruption flourishes.
Susan Lerner is the executive director of Common Cause/NY.