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Ethics Reform Should Include Open, Public Discussion

The Brennan Center is pleased to see the New York State Legislature committed to passing ethics reform, but the proposal must be subject to public scrutiny.

January 14, 2010

Given New York’s growing number of corruption scandals, the Brennan Center is pleased to see the State Legislature committed to passing ethics reform. However, we caution against rushing to pass a measure of such importance without providing an opportunity for public input. The Brennan Center urges the legislature to open this bill to scrutiny in public hearings across the state with an opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions and suggest modifications and improvements.

At numerous points during this morning’s press conference, supporters of the bill urged “speedy action” and indicated that the majority conferences in each chamber have the votes to pass this legislation rapidly. While we agree that there is an urgent need for action to fix New York’s broken ethics and campaign finance enforcement systems, a robust and open legislative process is more important than ever.

It would be deeply ironic if a bill touted as a step toward transparency and openness in government were crafted exclusively behind closed doors, without the opportunity for hearings and public input. Part of the process of ethics reform should be an open, meaningful dialogue between the public and its lawmakers, not the product of closed-door sessions governed by self-interest.

We have not yet had an opportunity to review the details of the new proposal, but based on what was said at today’s press conference, the proposed legislation promises to make some important improvements. 

We’re encouraged to see that lobbyists will have to disclose payments to legislators; there will be more independent oversight over the executive branch; and the Board of Elections’ capacity to monitor and enforce compliance with existing campaign finance laws may be strengthened.

At the same time, we have some serious concerns about a number of provisions in the bill, including:

  • The body charged with overseeing the legislature will be appointed by legislative leaders;
  • Certain members of the legislature, including lawyers, will needlessly be given a blanket exemption from disclosing outside sources of income; and
  • Two commissioners of either political party on the Board of Elections would have effective veto power over the newly created “enforcement counsel” to hold hearings or issue subpoenas in support of his investigations

After the public has had an opportunity to weigh in on this legislation, legislators should revise the bill based on this input, with a focus on strengthening the bill’s campaign finance provisions, requiring independent oversight of the legislature, and requiring all legislators – regardless of profession – to fully disclose sources of outside income.