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Editorial: Ethically challenged state continues to spurn reforms

The New York State budget, passed this month just over a week late, accomplished a number of significant goals, especially for Western New York and upstate, in general, but what it flatly refused to do is at least as remarkable, given the corruption that permeates state government.

Even knowing that both the public and prosecutors are well aware of their fondness for devious conduct, legislators paid no mind to the ethics reforms Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed in his budget. Nor did Cuomo make a serious point of them, focusing instead on what were evidently his higher priorities, including the follow-up to the Buffalo Billion program, free tuition for public college students and state approval for ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft.

Not that the other programs were without merit, but it’s a shame because the budget is where a governor in this state has the most influence over the Legislature. What is more, when Cuomo really wants something, he tends to get it, and little is more important to the taxpayers of New York than to reduce the temptation for self-dealing that grips too many state legislators.

Legislators aren’t interested in changing that. They want the rules to be as loose as possible to give them as much leeway as possible. Many of them, it is fair to say, cling to this corrupt system not for reasons of criminality, but to keep their paths to re-election as clear of obstruction as possible. Thus, they fight to maintain absurdly high contribution limits and to keep the “LLC loophole,” whose only purpose is to allow wealthy donors to give as much as they want to any given candidate.

The resistance to change is evident in both chambers of the Legislature, but is especially influential in the Senate, where Republicans struggle to maintain their dominance. Indeed, they would be in the minority at this point but for a breakaway group of Democrats who align with Republicans. The Senate is thus loath to forgo any money advantage as Republicans struggle to retain control of the chamber – even when that advantage calls members’ honesty into question.

But the laws are preposterous and are written in a way that invites corruption. Consider the LLC loophole, created by the state Board of Elections, which unaccountably ruled in 1996 that limited liability corporations are not corporations, trusts or partnerships but, in fact, are “individuals,” who are allowed to give state candidates tens of thousands of dollars more than corporations in a year.

By state law, corporations can give up to $5,000 in campaign contributions in any year. But individuals can donate up to $60,800 to candidates in statewide races – an amount of money that practically screams corruption.

And it gets worse, because wealthy donors can set up multiple LLCs, enabling them to funnel as much money as they want to favored candidates. As a 2015 story in The Buffalo News reported, LLCs have become “the conduits through which developers, pro-gambling forces and the telecommunications industry, among others, today give nearly $5 million to legislative candidates in an election cycle and almost $10 million to those running for governor.“

Who would give so much money without wanting something substantive in return? And why would legislators maintain that system unless they were prepared to play ball?

Unfortunately for New Yorkers, President Trump fired Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney who was the scourge of Albany corruption. With state legislators so unmoved by their own seediness, voters have to hope that whoever takes over in Bharara’s office understands that this important work is not yet finished.

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