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Ethics reform is so vital for New York’s future it must have the governor’s full attention

A sign of a chief executive who is passionate about the causes he holds dear is his willingness to go and fight for them. Ronald Reagan did it for tax cuts. Franklin Roosevelt did it for the New Deal. And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is doing it for paid family leave and a higher minimum wage. New Yorkers need to see him bring that same passion to the desperate need for ethics reform in state government.

Whatever differences New Yorkers may have about the minimum wage and paid family leave, they no doubt agree that they are significant issues. They are worthy of passion, in support or in opposition. Not only is the same true of ethics reform, but no conscious New Yorker should be against it. There may be different ideas about how best to go about securing better ethics in state government but, understanding what the lack of ethics has done to the state, few would dispute the crying, desperate need.

Cuomo has made efforts in the past to push for a more ethical Albany, but he never seemed willing to go to the mat for it, as he is now for higher wages and family leave. This is the year he must.

His best effort so far, the creation in 2013 of a Moreland Commission to investigate public corruption in New York, succeeded wildly, but ironically, only because he backed away from it. As the commission became more aggressive, he won minor reforms from the State Legislature, declared victory and disbanded the commission.

But, luckily for New Yorkers, the panel’s work had aroused the curiosity of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who took custody of its files. By the end of last year, he had won felony convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. And while they are two of the biggest fish found to have abused their public offices to pad their private bank accounts, they were hardly alone. Former Comptroller Alan Hevesi went to prison for his pay-to-play activities involving state funds. Many other Senate and Assembly members have also been convicted of crimes or driven from office on suspicion of having, in one way or another, violated their oaths of office.

There can be no serious argument that New Yorkers need better government than this and also that there are clear and obvious steps that can be taken to achieve that.

First and foremost is to limit or prohibit outside income for the state’s elected officials. That’s where many lawmakers are tempted into betraying their constituents. It’s what ensnared Silver, who used his position as a practicing lawyer to enrich himself. The state also needs better control on campaign contributions and a disclosure of who is giving money. In that, the state needs to eliminate the LLC loophole, which allows corporate givers to donate as much money as they wish, usually in the hope of buying influence on legislation.

Too many lawmakers refuse to acknowledge the need for ethics reform. State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, about whom there has been no suggestion of impropriety, nonetheless observed in December that “I haven’t had one constituent come up to me and say anything about it.”

But leadership isn’t always about following the crowd. Sometimes it needs to be about acting in the service of those constituents, even when they don’t understand or argue for change.

Sadly, there seems little prospect, even with Silver and Skelos facing prison terms, that Albany will act. State legislators like the loosey-goosey system that allows them the room to pillage the state as they see fit.

That’s where Cuomo needs to come in. Just as he is pushing for a higher minimum wage and paid family leave, he needs to make the case for ethics reform, explaining how the lack of it drives up taxes and what could be achieved by finally wrestling this beast to the ground.

Even then, it won’t be easy. New York remains, in many ways, the corrupt enterprise it was in the dirty days of Tammany Hall. But this year offers the best opportunity in years to make serious headway.

Not only have Silver and Skelos been convicted of serious crimes, but lawmakers have every reason to believe that Bharara remains on the prowl. Plus, this is an election year with every seat in the Legislature on the ballot. Many lawmakers may run without opposition, but Cuomo could encourage competition if he makes an issue of ethics and lawmakers refuse to budge.

One way or another, this is an issue that is worth the fight, but the fight is unlikely to be engaged unless Cuomo takes it to lawmakers, by way of their overtaxed, underserved constituents.