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State lawmakers’ first step must be basic reform

New York’s broken system needs some basic mending before they get down to polishing the bills. The needs for ethics and campaign finance reform are immediate.

Published: January 14, 2010

Originally published in the Albany Times Union.

The state Legislature is back in session in Albany. After last year’s sessions, no additional explanation is necessary to understand why a series of Brennan Center reports have highlighted it as the most dysfunctional legislature in the nation. It’s time to repair New York’s badly broken democracy.

Gov. David Paterson has come to realize this and shared his sober assessment with New Yorkers in his somber State of the State. He lamented, “We must address the chronic abuse of power. Chronic and continuing experiences of outside influence and inside decay have bred cynicism and scorn of the people we represent.”

The medicine offered is called the “Reform Albany Act.” The text of the legislation has not yet been released to the public. But if it lives up to the summaries that have been circulated in the press, then it will be one part ethics reform and one part campaign finance reform—two changes long overdue in Albany.

Campaign finance regulation has long been little more than a mirage in New York. As the Brennan Center documented in its report “Paper Thin” and again in an Albany Government Law Review article, New York’s system is riddled with holes so big that $100,000 checks can find their way into the coffers of the state’s political parties under the ruse known as “housekeeping accounts”—New York’s equivalent to federal “soft money.”

After last summer’s Senate coup and after former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno’s conviction on corruption charges, the ensuing public embarrassment should motivate legislators to do the right thing.

Governor Paterson said it well in his speech: “The inevitable goal of this legislation is to bring fairness and openness to government, which has very little of either. The moneyed interests, many of them here today as guests, have got to understand that their days of influence in this Capitol are numbered.”

New York can still turn the page and live up to its motto: Excelsior. But first, it needs to put its legislative house in order by answering the governor’s call for basic reform so that our democracy can recover.