Lawmakers leave Albany without big ethics reforms
ALBANY – Another legislative session is in the books, and another chapter in Albany’s long story of backroom horse trading has come to a close – without the reforms voters say are needed to address corruption.
The session started in January with some bold proposals to fix the state’s porous campaign finance laws, beef up ethics enforcement and put limits on the pay lawmakers can make from side jobs.
But none passed during a six-month session that ended around 5 a.m. Saturday.
For good-government groups and officials long bewildered by Albany’s inaction, the resolution was as disappointing as it was unsurprising.
“When it came to important ethics reforms, a failure of leadership resulted in this year’s session ending with a whimper of cynical distractions and half measures,” said Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner following the end of the session. “Sadly, little was accomplished that would begin to restore a modicum of faith in Albany.”
This year presented lawmakers with a rare opportunity to act on ethics. Ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, were both convicted of unrelated federal corruption charges, becoming the latest in a line of more than 30 lawmakers to leave office facing charges or ethical allegations since 2000.
With hundreds of bills passed each year, there are always winners and losers in any legislative session. If public opinion polls showing that government corruption is a top concern are any indication, the voters of New York state are at the top of the list of losers this year. A Siena College poll last month found that 96 percent of voters consider ethics reforms to be an important priority for lawmakers, though 67 percent said they were pessimistic about the chances for such reforms passing.
While the bills that passed this year will allow lawmakers to claim they took action on corruption, they’ll do little to address the underlying issues that have allowed scandal to flourish in Albany, according to the good-government groups that have long tracked state government corruption.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said ethics reforms were among his top goals for the year – yet his most significant proposals to tighten campaign finance laws and restrict lawmakers’ outside income never got serious attention from lawmakers, and Cuomo spent much of the session instead pushing for a minimum wage increase.
One is a potential constitutional amendment needed to strip the state pensions of lawmakers convicted of corruption. The idea gained momentum following the convictions of Skelos and Silver, who remain eligible for retirement benefits.
“Those who breach the public trust and violate their oaths of office do not deserve to be financially supported by the very people they failed to serve,” said Assemblyman David Buchwald, a Westchester County Democrat.
But good government groups, while supportive, say taking away a crooked politician’s pension isn’t likely to deter future corruption, since the threat of years in federal prison time hasn’t prevented it in the past.
The amendment also isn’t a done deal. Because it would revise the constitution, it must be approved by the Legislature twice – so lawmakers will have to hold another vote next year before it then goes to the voters.
Another bill passed this year aims to strengthen rules prohibiting supposedly independent political groups from working with campaigns. The measure, from Cuomo, was prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which prohibits restrictions on independent political spending. Critics of the ruling say it allows wealthy donors, organizations or even candidates themselves to use independent groups to avoid campaign finance limits.
Additionally, lawmakers voted to change disclosure rules to require political consultants to identify clients and expand reporting requirements to cover smaller lobbying efforts.
Again, good government groups say that while a good idea, the changes won’t solve the problems behind most of Albany’s scandals, which they say are often attributed to lawmakers using their public office for personal gain.
“It’s a grab bag cobbled together,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It doesn’t deal with the heart of what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called Albany’s ‘culture of corruption.'”
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the changes approved this year represented “significant steps in the right direction.” But even some lawmakers who ended up voting for the legislation seemed underwhelmed. Sen. Daniel Squadron, D-Brooklyn, said they were “like taking an aspirin for a broken arm.”
Instead, they recommend stronger independent ethics enforcement, caps on large campaign contributions, more transparency in the way the state budget is negotiated and the elimination of a loophole allowing limited liability companies to skirt campaign finance limits.
“If lawmakers won’t respond to their constituents’ demands, than voters will have to consider that information in the fall,” said Common Cause-New York Director Susan Lerner.