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Ethics Reform for New York State – Let’s Keep At It

What the new NY ethics bill will—and won’t—do to fix some of New York’s problems; plus a short, recent history of ethics reform bills of the last few years.

  • Kelly Williams
January 21, 2010

Originally posted at ReformNY.

One week after it was introduced, lawmakers in Albany yesterday pushed through their ethics reform package. Even with only a single dissenting vote in the Senate and two dissenting votes in the Assembly, many of the bill’s supporters could muster only faint praise. “We have further to go,” said Senator Liz Kreuger, who voted for the bill. Some Republican lawmakers have promised that any override of a veto by the governor include consideration of their proposed improvements, which are aimed at increased bipartisanship in the state’s campaign finance enforcement infrastructure, but do not go as far as we would like to increase disclosure, limit potential conflicts of interest and establish an independent ethics commission for the legislature.

The bill contains a small but tidy list of positive measures:

  • increased enforcement of campaign finance laws
  • requirements that registered lobbyists disclose business relationships with officials
  • that lawmakers publicly disclose their income by categories

But a number of very good proposals, including the Governor’s, were ignored, and deserve an open discussion and serious consideration going forward.

On a larger scale, ethics and disclosure laws have undergone revolutionary thinking in recent years and New Yorkers should insist that they have the opportunity to consider these ideas and compare them to best practices in other places. The Jack Abramoff scandals resulted in sweeping reforms at the federal level in 2007. Public financing systems in other jurisdictions, including Arizona, Connecticut and New York City, merit scrutiny. The majority of states have independent ethics oversight commissions with jurisdiction over all officials. Corporate contributions are not allowed at the federal level and in the majority of states and contribution limits in New York should be lowered. These and other improvements would create strong disincentives for corruption.

The last time the legislature addressed the issue of ethics reform was in 2007, when newly-elected Governor Eliot Spitzer, together with the leaders of the Assembly and Senate, cobbled the Public Employees Ethics Reform Act (PEERA) of 2007, the first comprehensive modification to lobbying and ethics laws in New York State in twenty years.

The 73-page bill was unveiled on January 23, 2007, and adopted by the legislature without hearing or substantive debate a few weeks later. Then, as now, the problems with the system were obvious and comprehensive reform proposals had been circulating for many months. But innovative ideas fell on the deaf ears of legislators, who left in place the bifurcated, politicized system of ethics oversight that allows the legislature to police itself. Good government groups supported the law’s ban on honoraria and gifts; praise was faint for the remainder of the package.

Faced with an ongoing series of corruption scandals, lawmakers should sponsor open public hearings across the state, with an opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions, consider the variety of reforms adopted in other states, and air suggestions for improvements.