With only nine scheduled working days until the end of the 2016 legislative session, it’s a good time to review where New York is at after what is arguably the most scandal-ridden session in state history.
Despite the corruption convictions of the legislature’s top leaders, other legislators, and the growing federal investigations of top allies of the governor, little has been accomplished to clean up Albany. Last week, however, there were noises that may inspire hope.
The governor released a package of proposals targeting the infamous limited liability companies’ campaign finance “loophole.” Under state law, LLCs are allowed to donate much higher campaign contributions than other businesses.
There has been an ongoing effort to close the “loophole” and treat LLCs like other corporations. But the effort has been repeatedly blocked by some Republicans. Last week, the governor tried another approach – he offered the Senate Republican leadership an a la carte version, which would allow them to treat LLCs like other businesses for the governor’s office only. It was rejected.
But the governor’s focus on pushing the LLC issue raises a more important question: What should be Albany’s priority in ethics reform?
The major scandals have been instances in which top-ranking public officials used the power of their government office to enrich themselves personally. In the case of former Assembly Speaker Silver, he gamed the system to the tune of millions of dollars. Limited liability companies played a role – they were some of his lucrative clients – but the scandal had little to do with campaign contributions per se.
Why then the focus on LLCs’ loophole? The governor has argued that the public understands little of the complexities of the various scandals and necessary reforms. But that’s because so little public education has occurred.
Had the governor used the last two months to build public support for reforms, he might have had a better package of reforms to advance. Instead, the governor said virtually nothing about what ails Albany. Now at this late date he argues that he can’t advance a more comprehensive package due to public ignorance.
Political leadership was, and still is, needed. Its absence is why the public debate is so diffuse.
As public officials move toward the end of session, now is the time to focus on the most important reforms and “grade” the governor and the legislature on what they are able to accomplish.
The top reform is an overhaul of state ethics enforcement. Why did for the former Speaker and Senate Majority Leader think that they could use their power to enrich themselves? Because they knew that no one was watching. If it wasn’t for federal prosecutors, the head of the Assembly would be Silver and the head of the Senate would be Skelos. Instead, they are out due to their corruption convictions.
New York’s top ethics watchdog – the Joint Commission on Public Ethics – is a captive agency, not an independent one. Its commissioners are appointed by the governor and the legislative leaders. Its current and previous executive directors have all worked for the governor. New York State needs an independent commission, one which will enforce the law without fear of favor.
New York needs to limit the “moonlighting” of public officials. State lawmakers are allowed to have outside jobs. Consistently, that outside employment has created conflicts for some public officials and led to scandals. And this problem is not just one of the legislative branch, the most recent federal subpoenas have targeted the outside employment of one of the governor’s former top aides. New York should track the Congressional system and drastically limit the temptation of outside employment.
Government should operate in the open. New York’s economic development programs are under scrutiny by federal investigators. Some of the legislative scandals, most notably the former Assembly Speaker’s, stemmed from unaccountable agency slush funds. Too often, these agencies operate in secret. Governmental entities operate on behalf of the public; they must do so openly and accountably.
Campaign finance reforms are needed too. The LLC loophole is just one of a number of changes that should be tackled.
Albany’s ethics reform scorecard must focus on the biggest problems and be based on performance, not rhetoric.