Governor David Paterson took on the State Legislature face to face today -- on ethics reform.
It was ironic, since some of the greatest violations of ethics ever have been committed by members of these two bodies. Indeed, the man who served as the Senate’s majority leader for 14 years, Joe Bruno, is awaiting sentencing on corruption charges.
The Governor was applauded politely when he entered the room and, at the end of his speech. But we didn’t detect overwhelming enthusiasm for his words.
This was the State of the State address, delivered early each year, a mandated ritual of New York government. In this traditional speech, the governor, like a doctor, takes the state’s temperature and, if necessary, prescribes remedies.
Paterson covered a broad range of ailments. In this "winter of reckoning," he called for a program to promote job growth, especially in upstate New York. He asked for drastic changes in the state pension system. He called, too, for fiscal reform, for a cap on spending.
But his program’s keystone was ethics reform. He proposed that an independent commission oversee ethics and help root out vices like "pay to play," the influence of campaign contributions---- to gain contracts and other advantages from state officials. The new commission would oversee conduct by both legislators and officials in the executive branch of government. Campaign finance reform would be another feature of the program.
Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who over the years has pushed for reforms in entities like state authorities, said the governor had made a "good speech." But, Brodsky told me, the governor has concentrated so far on "reform of the political class. "
"We ought to be talking about reform affecting individual citizens." Brodsky listed property taxes, the right to privacy, health care and higher education as among the major concerns of the people.
Brodsky points out that corruption isn’t something that afflicts only legislatures. In the last few years, he said, governors of the three states in our metropolis, including McGreevey in New Jersey, Rowland in Connecticut and Spitzer in New York have resigned for ethical wrongdoing.
Although they listened to him politely, the lawmakers didn’t seem keen on the Paterson agenda. What was most striking about the Governor’s speech was that he delivered it without a hitch. Paterson is blind. He memorizes his speeches.
At the end, he made one poignant reference to his blindness.
"In these times of struggle," he said, "I remember the enduring faith of a child who grew up in a world of darkness, who chooses to believe in something bigger than himself or herself and in spite of the adversity and the doubts of others, they can find strength and humility and perseverance and so can all of us."