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Blair Horner: Albany's Historic Opportunity For Reform

By December 1st, Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Act Commission to Investigate Public Corruption is supposed to release its interim report.  The 25 member Commission was appointed earlier this year by the governor to examine New York State’s laws regulating public officials’ ethics as well as its campaign financing system.

The governor’s authority to create this Commission stems from the Moreland Act, a law which allows him to convene a panel to examine waste in government and to make recommendations for reform.  The Commission’s powers have been bolstered by Attorney General Schneiderman’s actions to “deputize” the commission members as deputy attorneys general.   Doing so has given the Commission a broader legal reach than those powers contained in the Moreland Act.   The Commission’s mandate includes a review of:

  • Criminal statutes for corruption and misconduct by public officials, such as bribery laws;
  • Campaign financing including contribution limits and other restrictions;
  • Compliance with existing lobbying laws; and
  • Adequacy and enforcement of the State’s election laws by the state Board of Elections.

Given the mind-boggling number of scandals, controversies and investigations that have plagued Albany in just the past few years, it is critical that New York State takes clear steps to begin to restore public confidence in state government.  Mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that state government acts in a transparent manner and that it can be held accountable for its actions. 
The Commission offers an historic opportunity to change New York State political culture.  New Yorkers too often have experienced controversies and scandals that grow out loopholes in campaign finance and ethics laws, lax limits on political fundraising, and ineffective or non-existent enforcement of such laws from agencies that seem almost structurally designed to fail.

The Commission’s proposal must tackle a wide range of problems.  In order to succeed, the Commission must offer:

  • changes to the state’s campaign financing system, including public financing of elections, lower contribution limits, and elimination of “housekeeping accounts;”
  • disclosure of independent expenditures;
  • limits on the use of campaign funds – including banning the personal use of these funds, and restrictions on transferring monies to other campaigns or to “Super PACs,” and better disclosures; 
  • a new campaign enforcement agency modeled on the New York City Campaign Finance Board;
  • structural changes to the state ethics watchdog, to make it more accountable to the public and to ensure that it is an independent watchdog that enforces the law without fear or favor; and,
  • new limits on campaign contributions from lobbyists.

New Yorkers deserve a new Albany – one in which the government is responsible to the public, not the political parties, political leadership or special interests of the state.  The ultimate goal is the restoration of a state government that meets the highest standards.
In the same way that Governor Theodore Roosevelt championed the civil service system as a way to reduce cronyism in government, so should Governor Cuomo and lawmakers champion measures to reduce political interference and bolster oversight.

The governor and state lawmakers must begin to solve people’s problems, set new ethical standards for the executive branch and take actions that help restore public faith in Albany. 

That’s that for now.  I’ll be keeping an eye on the Capitol and will talk you again next week.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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