Can good ethics be legislated?
We’re going to find out. Governor Cuomo has announced his ethics reform package -- and, with the agreement of the legislative leaders, it will become law. But the effectiveness of this new law is still to be determined in one tough proving ground.
In his effort to clean up Albany and change its culture of being an incubator of corruption and ugly politics, the governor, with leaders of the legislature, has proposed a series of reforms including:
- make legislators reveal the clients they have that do business with the state
- permit prosecutors to take pensions away from legislators convicted of felonies
- allow a commission appointed by the governor and the leaders to oversee conduct in both the legislative and executive branches.
Albany has been described in the past as “dysfunctional.” Will this legislation change that image? Dick Dadey of Citizens Union, is optimistic. He says it’s a “different approach” that might be successful.
But the very structure of the reforms that Cuomo proposes raises some questions that need to be answered. Thus, the new approach includes a joint ethics commission with oversight over both the executive and legislative branches. It would include six members appointed by the governor, split between Democrats and Republicans. The majority leaders of the two houses of the legislature would each appoint three members and the minority leaders one each.
As The New York Times noted, the appointees of the majority leader of the Senate and the Assembly speaker will have veto power to block investigations of sitting lawmakers. And, if the commission votes against pursuing a complaint, that decision will remain secret.
That seems like a serious flaw -- but supporters of the legislation still believe it’s a better approach to legislative wrongdoing than has ever been made.
Dadey told me: “It’s not a perfect bill. But it accomplishes a lot. We will now see the disclosure of clients and the public will have the income ranges of individual legislators. And state agencies will be required to report on any firm or business that is doing business with them.
“It may not be an ideal system but it’s far better than what we have now.”
The old saying in Missouri is: I want to be shown. New Yorkers want to be shown that the new system works. The last years in Albany have understandably bred cynicism.
And now it’s up to the legislature and the governor to prove that a new era has begun.