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In wake of scandals, New York’s lawmakers consider reforms

ALBANY – Ideas for bolstering the public’s confidence in state government have been bouncing around the state Capitol, in some cases, for decades.

Now, the buzz is kicking into high gear, with an election next fall and lawmakers trying to distance themselves from the recent corruption convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is again drafting another set of ideas he claims will improve Albany’s health. The successors to Silver and Skelos – Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan – also are fielding ideas, some of which have died year after year in the Legislature.

Still, with the Legislature set to return in a few weeks for the 2016 session, only one thing is certain right now: Consensus is far from at hand.

Rank-and-file Democratic and Republican lawmakers from Western New York do not agree on statutory or internal rule changes that might be needed to help restore the public’s faith in Albany.

Those who were interviewed – Assembly members and senators who sit in the majority party conferences that determine the fate of legislation – differed with each other when asked two basic questions: What is the single most important change needed to improve Albany’s ethical standing, and what proposal being kicked around do they worry will do more harm than good?

While jury convictions or guilty pleas of a half-dozen lawmakers in 2015 have served to push ethics to a top-shelf position in Albany, lawmakers say constituents back in their home districts are more focused on issues like jobs and taxes.

“I see it in the Albany media. I see it in some editorials, but I haven’t had one constituent come up to me and say anything about it,” Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Elma Republican, said of corruption-related issues.

Still, most believe the Silver and Skelos convictions will propel some statutory or rule changes in Albany in 2016. Whether they will be serious enough is anyone’s guess.

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, holds a basic belief after watching so many of her colleagues get into trouble in recent years:

“You really can’t legislate morality,” she said.

Stronger oath

At the top of her ethics agenda: Add language to the oath of office now given to legislators and other public officials that would require them to affirmatively state they have a fiduciary responsibility only for the public good and not for any self-interest. Peoples-Stokes believes the additional language would make it easier for a prosecutor to go after corrupt officials.

Colorado is one state that has such fiduciary requirements for state and local government officials, allowing district attorneys to go after politicians who engage in a “breach of fiduciary responsibility.”

“You swore that this is the only reason you are here so if self-interest is evident, then you’ve violated the law,” Peoples-Stokes said of the idea.

Forfeiting pensions

What does she not want implemented? Pension forfeiture for officials convicted of crimes. She called that a slippery slope that could deny benefits that were previously partly funded by a government official or block the right for a spouse to collect his or her spouse’s government pension.

“It sounds real sexy and punitive and people like the way it sounds, but I just think there’s some unintended consequences that we could regret in future years,” the lawmaker said.

But Sen. Rob Ortt, a North Tonawanda Republican, put public pension forfeiture at the top of his list for changes he would like to see.

“Given everything that’s gone on, and the fact that the Senate passed it last session, there’s no reason why the Assembly shouldn’t pass it,” Ortt said of stripping pensions from convicted officials.

Financing campaigns

Ortt said he is most concerned with a push for public financing of political campaigns – an idea backers say would help remove some of the influence from deep-pocket donors in Albany.

He rejects that, saying, “I look at it as nothing more than welfare for politicians.”

Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican who chairs the main Senate Republican fundraising committee, also opposes a public campaign finance system.

“Most folks are outraged by the idea,” she said.

Three of the four Senate Republicans interviewed pointed to such a campaign finance system as the most problematic of the proposals floating around Albany.

“When we’re looking at the use of public taxpayer dollars, I just don’t think that’s wise use, where we’re funding robo calls for Sheldon Silver or someone else,” Gallivan said.

Both Young and Ortt said the Assembly should join the Senate in passing legislation that imposes term limits on legislative leaders. The Senate has such a limit – four terms – in its house rules for majority leader.

“Leaders and committee chairs should be term limited to ensure that no one person becomes too powerful,” Young said.

Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, the longest-serving member of the Western New York delegation, said he supports public financing of elections because he said it would level the playing field between incumbents and challengers.

Outside income limits

None of the lawmakers strongly support one heavily promoted idea: a full-time Legislature with strict limits on outside income.

Common Cause/NY, which supports a ban on outside income for lawmakers along with a salary increase and requiring the Legislature to be full time, last week reported that about 40 percent of the state lawmakers have outside income in some form beyond their base state salaries of $79,500. About 8 percent of the Legislature earned between $100,000 and $500,000 in outside income. Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, an Amherst Republican, averaged $200,000 in outside income in 2014, the fourth-highest, according to the organization.

Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat, said it is time for a discussion about limiting outside income. He said he voluntarily limits his by not practicing law on the side.

“I recognize that people came to Albany to serve at a time when there has been no prohibition on outside income, but the question is, do recent events change the imperative?” he asked.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, noted that there have been eight criminal convictions of Albany officials that involved in some manner their outside business activities. He said the Legislature needs to restrict outside income for lawmakers as Congress did in a series of law changes made after Watergate.

“It is clear that we need to limit outside income and tighten our conflict-of-interest rules,” Ryan said. “There is a window now that is only open because of the recent convictions. The Assembly and Senate must act now on comprehensive reforms if we expect to restore the public trust in our body.’’

Ranzenhofer disagreed with the full-time Legislature route.

“One thing that concerns me is to go to a purely political Legislature where all anybody does is serve as a senator or assemblyperson full time. I don’t think that’s good for the Legislature. I don’t think you’d have the breadth of experience you’re able to get now from people in business, lawyers, realtors, teachers, chiropractors,” Ranzenhofer said.

Gallivan, who has earned outside income from a private investigation firm he has run, sees merits to both sides of the debate. He worries about losing the diversity associated with the range of professional interests in the Legislature – from insurance to funeral homes – and worries that a full-time, legislative-only salary might dissuade people from high-cost areas of the state from serving in the Senate or Assembly.

“I also know that if we remove the temptation, with higher full-time (salary) and no ability for outside income, you remove the temptation to be putting money in your pocket somehow,” Gallivan said.

Seeking transparency

Schimminger backs closing a loophole that allows corporate and individual interests to skirt campaign donation limits by bundling donations through separate limited liability corporations. The 20-year LLC loophole, which is the subject of a court fight over its legality, has permitted donors, such as real estate developers, to fatten the campaign accounts of politicians from Cuomo to rank-and-file legislators.

Second among over-used words in Albany beyond “reform” is “transparency.” In the wake of the Silver and Skelos convictions, promotion of transparency is flowing regularly these days at the Capitol. The talk increased in the wake of the veto by Cuomo, on the same day Skelos was convicted, of two measures to improve the process for the state’s Freedom of Information Law, used by lawyers, environmentalists, reform groups, reporters and others to pry documents and other information from state agencies and authorities.

Ranzenhofer, who sponsored one of the FOIL bills Cuomo vetoed, said “greater transparency” of state government is going to be a major topic for the 2016 session.

“Transparency is a big thing,” Gallivan added. “A higher level of transparency is certainly needed. If the perception that people have of government is that it is not transparent, there’s a problem with it.”

While 90 percent of respondents in a recent Siena College poll said corruption is a serious problem in Albany, watchdog groups worry that as more time passes after the Silver and Skelos convictions, the odds will increase that Cuomo and lawmakers will not react meaningfully. Still others say laws already on the books can address corruption, but that Albany suffers from an age-old problem: lack of enforcement of those laws.

For now, proposals on the part of some lawmakers are either mushy, not written down or in the category of bills that could only make it through one legislative chamber.