Editorial: Put up or shut up on cleaning up Albany

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John Flanagan’s soon-to-end reign as state Senate majority leader was marked by his obstruction of common-sense legislation on gun control, abortion, campaign finance reform, child sex abuse victims and online sales taxes.

But Flanagan can claim one important accomplishment. He was the first state Senate majority leader, with one exception, to not be convicted of political corruption since 1994.

The list of convicted majority leaders includes both Republicans and Democrats with one of the five, Joseph Bruno, later having his conviction overturned.

Not that the leadership of the state Assembly has been any better. It just had less turnover. Sheldon Silver served from 1994 to 2015, when he was convicted of political corruption.

In 2016, syracuse.com reported that in the past 13 years at least 29 state legislators, or former legislators, and other elected state officials had been convicted of felonies, misdemeanors or violations.

Executive branch leaders may have been even worse.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in 2008 amid a prostitution scandal. State Comptroller Alan Hevesi went to prison in 2011 for his leading role in an influence-peddling scandal. And Eric Schneiderman resigned his position as attorney general this year after The New Yorker reported that four women had accused him of sexual and physical abuse. He was cleared last week of criminal charges.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been indictment free. But Alain E. Kaloyeros, Cuomo’s former economic development guru, and Joseph Percoco, Mr. Cuomo’s former campaign manager and executive deputy secretary, were convicted in 2018 for abusing the public trust.

Cuomo and others have often talked about fixing Albany’s political corruption problem, but when push came to shove backed down – often blaming Senate Republicans.

With last week’s midterm elections in which Democrats seized control of the state Senate, the Democrats now control both houses of the Legislature and the governorship. So they have no more excuses for inaction.

Nor do the Republicans. As the last election showed, nobody has been buying what the GOP has been selling in New York in recent years. Clearly, they need a new focus. How about becoming the party of an honest, well-governed state?

Let them join reform-minded Democrats and hold Cuomo’s and others’ feet to the fire. And if the Democrats fail, a few of them might even get elected to statewide office.

Where to start? A full-time Legislature.

New York has a budget of $168.3 billion, one of the highest of any government in the country and larger than many countries.

But, as state Assembly Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) pointed out in a New York Times op-ed article in 2015, “my colleagues and I work shockingly few hours: Next year we are scheduled to spend just 57 days in Albany between Jan. 6 and June 16, when the legislative session ends.”

Lavine added that 30 of those days go toward completing the state budget,  leaving only 27 days between April 1 and June 16 to consider all other governmental business.

Little time for checks and balances.

This helps explain Albany’s so-called three men in a room – the governor and two house leaders – making all the decision. The other legislators simply don’t spend enough time to understand the budget, consider legislation, take part in hearings and see what their leaders are up to.

For this to happen, state legislators must be full-time employees of the state and not engage in outside employment that can create conflicts with their public job. Which will require salaries to be increased to offset the loss of outside employment.

Some have complained that this would violate the ideal of the citizen-legislator. To which we say get real. You wouldn’t go to a part-time surgeon or a part-time financial planner. Why entrust a $193 billion budget to part-time legislators?

Some will complain about the increased cost to taxpayers. But they have it completely reversed. The increase in salaries will represent pennies on the dollar saved by legislators doing their jobs.

An investigation by The New York Times on the East Side Access Project, which would bring the Long Island Rail Road to the East Side of Manhattan,  found that the costs are likely to surpass $12 billion, or nearly $3.5 billion for each new mile of track, seven times the average cost in other cities across the world.

How about electing a Legislature that will hold hearings to explain the exorbitant cost of construction in New York and prevent it in the future.

Next, eliminate the so-called “LLC loophole,” which allows businesses to donate virtually unlimited amounts of money to candidates – a widely used form of legal bribery.

Real estate companies contribute millions of dollars to candidates, seeking (and getting) many times that in tax breaks and other goodies.

Then approve public financing of statewide elections along the lines of New York City to help take special-interest money out of elections or at least reduce its importance.

An independent inspector general with subpoena power should be appointed to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by members of the Legislature and the executive branch.

Accept state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s call to restore his office’s oversight of construction and construction-related services contracts.

In 2015, state agencies issued over $6.8 billion in contracts without comptroller review. We know what happened after that.

Our final suggestion is to pass a law – or approve a referendum – mandating that  crimes committed by those who lead New York’s government will be treated like hate crimes with higher penalties.

That would send a clear message: a public servant who violates the public’s trust should pay dearly. Rather than the taxpayer.

 

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