As much as this year’s state budget accomplished – for good or bad, depending upon your perspective – the one urgent thing that it did not do was to toughen state laws regarding ethics and criminality on the part of officeholders.
The explanation for that failure was that ethics legislation cannot appropriately be packaged into budget bills. Whether that is strictly true or not – lawmakers have never been much interested in cleaning their own houses under any circumstance – the budget is now complete and lawmakers need to turn to the matter of their ethics. It would be best if they could muster the interest to do this without being pressured by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, but since that’s about as likely as discretion in a brothel, Cuomo is already planning to take the lead.
More than lowered taxes or even economic development – both of them extremely important in this high-cost state – ethics reform is the most urgent matter facing Albany. The reason is that the chronic ethical lapses of lawmakers, and the loose regulations that accommodate them, have helped give rise to the state’s woeful position as the nation’s highest taxed, a condition that drives jobs to more welcoming, less corrupt states. It’s all of a piece, and it begins with politicians’ loyalty to donors rather than constituents.
Much of this has to do with the state’s preposterously high contribution limits for state political offices and, worse, the workarounds that allow big donors to evade even those limits. Consider: State law allows businesses to give up to $5,000 to candidates in any year, and individuals have a limit of $60,800.
But after a ludicrous 1996 ruling by the Board of Elections that declared limited liability corporations to be individuals, LLCs can contribute at the higher amount. Worse, there are no limits on the number of LLCs any individual can create, allowing a virtually unlimited flow of legalized bribes from parties with an economic interest in influencing government policy.
This is how big donors and politicians like it, but it has worked against the interests of voters, not to mention the politicians who have found themselves in the gunsights of prosecutors. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara secured felony convictions last year against two of the state’s most powerful officeholders: former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. And they are only the most recent of the elected criminals ushered out of office and into the arms of the law.
Another big problem concerns outside income, which led to Silver’s downfall. It needs to be strictly limited or, better still, prohibited. For legislators, that could be accomplished by making the position full time.
What is more, to the extent outside income is tolerated, there needs to be complete disclosure of the sources of that income. The Legislature’s lawyers will bray in protest that such disclosure violates confidentiality, but it’s a subterfuge.
Anytime a lawyer files court papers for a client, the relationship is disclosed. And, regardless of that, the public benefits of disclosure trump the lawyers’ need for secrecy. If they can’t abide by a strict disclosure law, they don’t belong in elected office.
Other issues demand attention. Any politician guilty of a felony related to the office he holds should forfeit his state pension, for example. By what logic should taxpayers be required to support a politician who turned on them? Cuomo is pushing for this change, among others, including closing the LLC loophole.
Lawmakers don’t want to deal with these issues. Their hold on office is greater if they can command unlimited donations from the interests trying to influence how they conduct the public’s business. They are comfortable in a corrupt system whose roots reach back to the criminal ways of Tammany Hall, but it’s time for a change.
Cuomo has done much for upstate since his election in 2010, and especially for Buffalo and Western New York. But his greatest achievement would be the enactment of laws that help to create a culture of public service in state government. Today, the culture is one of self-service, and it has cost New Yorkers a fortune.