It’s not rocket science – or even solar panel science, an emerging Buffalo industry that has state officials in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors.
Cleaning up Albany is not nearly that complicated.
“We have good models; they just won’t do it,” says reformer John Kaehny.
In case you’ve become so inured to corruption after the latest sentencing – former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos last week got five years in prison – it’s worth remembering that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are ways to both lessen the temptation to lie, steal and cheat and increase the odds that those who do get caught. Call it the bucket list we may never live to cross off:
Common Cause/NY would close the “limited liability company” loophole that lets donors circumvent contribution limits and disclosure rules to keep bribing politicians, restrict gifts to party “housekeeping” accounts that launder the money to help individual candidates and limit the outside income that creates conflicts of interest.
In return, the group notes, elected officials haven’t had a raise in two decades. It even held a forum last month with a cut-to-the-chase title: “Would you give your lawmakers a raise if it would make them stop stealing?” Don’t laugh; it’s your money.
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The New York Public Interest Research Group has a similar list, with Executive Director Blair Horner adding an item: Make the budget process more transparent so officials can’t hide payoffs to donors’ pet projects so easily.
Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, pushes what seems like a no-brainer: Have Albany copy New York City’s law banning “pay to play” so companies can’t grease palms to win contracts. He points to the feds’ look at companies like LPCiminelli that are awarded big state contracts while also being big political donors.
Kaehny also would subject state-controlled nonprofits overseeing economic-development efforts like the Buffalo Billion to the same bidding rules that state agencies must follow, create a truly independent ethics office and enact the state comptroller’s proposals to limit “backdoor spending” by state authorities and “lump sum” spending that hides where money goes.
All of these reforms have two things in common: They would clean up Albany; and legislators have no incentive to implement them. With districts so gerrymandered that lawmakers are “essentially immune to public pressure,” Kaehny sees the only possibility lying in Republicans picking a gubernatorial candidate not already ensnared.
Similarly, Horner says Gov. Andrew Cuomo rallied support for a minimum-wage hike and family leave; yet on ethics reform, he has done nothing to whip the public “into a fearsome fighting force that could cow the Legislature into acting.”
Those are two ways of saying the thing: Rather than focus on 223 legislators who each dodge responsibility, angry voters should target a governor.
And the anger is there. Common Cause Executive Director Susan Lerner points to a Siena Research Institute poll in which 97 percent say it’s important the state pass new laws to combat corruption. “I’ve never seen anything poll at 97 percent before. … That’s a pretty strong message,” she said.
Lawmakers can still ignore it. A governor that voters in every district can zero in on doesn’t have that luxury. And as Cuomo has proved, what a governor really wants – or that angry voters tell him he wants – he can get.