At least they’re talking about it. New York State lawmakers are nothing if not attuned to the political winds, and with the parade of crooks being led out of Albany lately, they are making the right noises. Mostly.
The problem is, legislators have shown over and over that they also know how to do as little as possible to maintain their unholy grip on power while slaking, at least temporarily, the demand for something approximating real ethics reform. Indeed, that is standard practice by state legislators: Do the minimum and go on violating the public trust as best as you can.
But with the felony convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, lawmakers are showing signs of understanding the need for more than a head fake. Predictably – and not inappropriately – the ideas run the gamut of approaches. But two of the most useful are also – again, predictably – two of the least supported: banning outside income and rescinding pensions of those convicted of felonies.
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes is among those opposing a pension forfeiture provision on grounds of unintended consequences. What would that do to the families of those convicted?
But that excuse misses the point. Prison, which Silver and Skelos both face, also carries unintended consequences. Does that mean state officials who commit felonies should be protected from the usual consequences of their actions? And we’re not talking about simple misbehavior, for crying out loud, or even misdemeanor offenses. These are felonies related to misuse of their public offices.
Why on Earth should any state official not be forced to forgo his or her pension under such circumstances? And, more to the point, why would any state official who cares about the effects on his family ever violate the law in such a way? New Yorkers who pay the salaries of state officials should not be asked to care more about lawmakers’ families than they do, themselves.
On another score, though, Peoples-Stokes had an intriguing, if depressing, idea. She wants to expand the oath of office for legislators and public officials to require them to state affirmatively that they have a fiduciary responsibility only for the public good and not for any self-interest. Colorado already has such a law, which makes it easier for prosecutors to go after corrupt officials.
Yet, how saddening it is even to have to think about adding such language to the oath of office. It’s like forcing parents to sign a promise to change the baby’s diapers. But such is the dirty state of politics in New York.
Another good idea disliked by legislators is to ban all outside income and to make their positions full time. But what’s the downside of that? It would cost taxpayers a little more in increased salaries – though not even a rounding error in the context of the state budget – but would pay handsome dividends on the other side, including potentially significant savings in the offices of district attorneys and others who would have more time to pursue murderers, terrorists and other miscreants.
State Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, noted that he doesn’t hear anything about the need for ethics reform from his constituents. Not surprisingly, their main interests are jobs and taxes.
By definition, though, leadership is about leading, not following. Surely state legislators at this point understand the moral imperative to take steps – big ones – to create a government that honors the standards of a great democracy. And surely the importance of creating jobs and restraining taxes does not preclude them from taking those necessary steps. They can do all three.
But it is past time to act. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo needs to be the instigator on this, and the leader. He must set the bar high and give voters reason to expect action by the Legislature. Enough of the prison train.