Governor, swallow the pill and sign the bill
By Daniel Squadron
Too often Albany is a place where good ideas go to die. One house of the Legislature passes a great bill that does not pass the other, or the governor releases a pie-in-the-sky proposal. But negotiation leading to agreement, and yes, an actual law, is elusive. For decades, an ever-shifting set of arguments has been used to prevent action, to kill reform in a closed backroom or with the alluring words of an empty press release.
One area that has particularly suffered is ethics oversight of public officials. Today’s ethics laws are weak, vague and largely unenforced. Lobbyists can hire legislators for outside work without the public ever knowing; ethics commissions that are supposed to monitor public officials are neither effective nor independent; and when former Majority Leader Joe Bruno was found to be running a private for-profit business out of his Senate office, using Senate staff on Senate payroll to do the work, state laws weren’t strong enough to prosecute him—his case had to be brought in federal court instead.
Last week, the Legislature, as I had been pushing for since being elected, finally passed an ethics reform package— built on a bill that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver passed through the Assembly last summer, and a package that came within one vote of passing the Senate in September.
Though flawed, the package was forged because the Senate and Assembly worked toward bills that could actually pass into law. No one would claim they are perfect, but everyone agrees that the bills that passed last week are an improvement over current law. That’s why they earned the support of the New York Public Interest Group, the League of Women Voters, and Citizens Union of New York.
Now, Gov. Paterson is threatening to veto the package; but if successful, a veto would leave us without any improvement at all. Let’s be honest: for many members of both houses, and even for the governor, real reform is a hard pill to swallow, and that fact is one of the major reasons this package doesn’t go all the way – but the flaws in the package do not make it meaningless or expendable.
Here are some of the key ways the package improves our state’s ethics laws:
• It creates, for the first time, meaningful enforcement at the State Board of Elections to pursue campaign finance violations.
• It creates a new, more independent ethics body to investigate wrongdoing by the Legislature.
• It requires lobbyists and their clients to disclose business dealings with public officials, including all legislators, and requires for the first time that legislators disclose income from consulting services and that income levels are publicly disclosed.
• It fills the “Bruno Gap” in state law by explicitly banning the use of government resources for outside, for-profit business.
These bills don’t fix everything we need to fix about Albany – far from it. We need campaign finance reform that will limit contributions, create public financing of elections, and lessen the influence of corporations and lobbyists. I am also pushing to improve Senate rules, ballot access, and the way we draw legislative districts.
But we shouldn’t waste the opportunity we have right now to enact the ethics improvements we passed last week. If the governor does not sign the laws, the Legislature should override his veto. With these new laws in place, we can build on what we have begun, continuing the fight to restore New Yorkers’ faith in state government and to make comprehensive reform a reality.
State Sen. Daniel Squadron represents the 25th District, covering most of Downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn.