Albany’s wasted ethics crisis
“Congratulations, New York, You’re #1 in Corruption.” That ignominious Politico headline is over a year old, and yet sadly, it remains truer than ever. Albany is in the throes of an unprecedented crisis of corruption with seemingly no end in sight.
In the last five years alone, more than two dozen members of the state Legislature have been indicted or resigned in disgrace. Their offenses included bribery, kickbacks, extortion and conspiracy. They were freshmen backbenchers as well as senior lawmakers. The last state Senate leader who wasn’t indicted held the position back in 1994. We have seen investigations and indictments in every capillary of state government and no branch or official seems to be immune.
The depressing roster of fallen public officials, their sordid misdeeds, and their myriad violations of the public trust leave little doubt that the crisis is real. But does anyone care?
Just weeks ago, a Siena College poll found that 96 percent of New Yorkers considered it very or somewhat important to pass new laws addressing political corruption this year. An older Marist poll found that 75 percent of respondents thought the level of corruption had increased in recent years. And an April Quinnipiac University poll found that 86 percent of voters thought that government corruption was a very or somewhat serious problem. Those same voters had a prescient lack of faith in Albany’s ability to heal itself; a majority thought the governor and Legislature wouldn’t improve ethics.
They were right.
Albany’s 2016 legislative session ended with a whimper of cynical distractions and half-measures. Most editorial boards agree. The Albany Times Union opined, “You had one job” (i.e. ethics) and the New York Times described “The Old Albany Hustle,” dismantling the fantastical claim of “the most successful session in modern history” as “not only wrong, but ridiculous.” Even the Oneonta Daily Star said New York “…has a broken spirit caused by a succession of body blows delivered by people we have sent to the state capital to represent our interests rather than their own.”
To change a system, we need to fundamentally change the culture of Albany and of New York state. In our Capitol, there is widespread agreement regarding the root causes of Albany’s toxic politics and how to fix it: addressing the issue of legislators’ outside income; cracking down on virtually unlimited, anonymous LLC contributions; creating a workable public campaign finance system; and creating truly independent, empowered enforcement agencies to police it all.
Across our state, we need to empower voters so citizens can have a stronger voice. Through common sense reforms including universal voter registration, early voting periods and permanent, no-excuse absentee ballots, more New Yorkers will have their voices heard and their legislators will be listening. These reforms have been proven to work in states like Oregon, which regularly sees voter turnout north of 70 percent, and can have the same impact here in the Empire State.
In February, I used the opportunity afforded by my state budget testimony to a joint committee of the Legislature to raise issues related to public corruption. I called for many of these measures in my testimony, including closing the LLC loophole. Last year I voluntarily agreed to forgo such contributions.
Yet with the public, press and advocates clearly yelling for reform, none of these solutions were seriously considered and the underlying causes of corruption went unaddressed.
Instead we hear excuses that reform can’t happen because it would be “political suicide” for a particular group. Instead we hear what New York Public Interest Research Group’s Blair Horner described as Albany’s “Watergate moment” resulting in nothing more than parking tickets for burglars. Instead we hear talk that a state constitutional convention is the only possible path to ethics reform – delivering results, at the earliest, sometime in the year 2020.
Little is being accomplished in Albany that would begin to restore a modicum of faith in state government. What a waste.
Stephanie Miner is the mayor of Syracuse.
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