Blair Horner: The Governor Cuts An Ethics Deal With The Speaker
Last week, Governor Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Heastie announced an agreement to strengthen New York’s ethics laws. At that time, the governor touted the agreement as extraordinary, the “most stringent ethical policy in the United States of America.”
But no one really knows if the agreement is the best in the nation. The only thing that has been disclosed about the details is in the governor’s news release. No bill language was provided to the media or public.
However, the governor did disclose his proposals in his budget plan and he said that the agreement is consistent with those ideas. Let’s take a look at what likely could be the best the public can expect in the governor-assembly agreement.
1. Requiring lawmakers to more fully the disclose the sources of lawmakers’ outside income. According to the press statements, public officials would have to disclose any legal or real-estate clients who paid them more than $5,000 in a year, as well as detail "the nature of" any work that paid them more than $1,000. The agreement would allow some exceptions, such as such as matrimonial cases and child custody cases.
Under the language proposed by the governor, however, loopholes exist. For example, if lawmaker’s outside business client controls multiple corporate entities, such as limited liability companies, and if each paid a lawyer-legislator just under the $5,000 cap, they could evade disclosure. And less detail would be provided about longstanding clients who would get “grandfathered” in. Moreover, other states have stronger disclosure requirements – the state of Alaska requires much more detailed disclosure from legislators, requiring them to report on the number of hours worked and the actual services provided.
Of course, the Congress limits the amount of money lawmakers can make outside of their elected office, which is far stronger than mere disclosure. Unless there are some new expansions of the proposed disclosure requirement, it appears that the governor/Assembly deal would not be the most stringent in the country.
2. A proposed constitutional amendment to yank crooked lawmakers’ pensions. Under a law that passed in 2011, new lawmakers could lose their public pensions if convicted of unethical activities. The agreement would change the constitution – subject to voter approval – for all lawmakers, even those in office prior to 2011. As such, this proposal is a fairly modest expansion and one that couldn’t take effect until late 2017, at the earliest.
3. New protections against the abuse of legislators’ per diem system. “Per diems” are the way that lawmakers can be compensated for the additional costs of attending legislative activities. Currently, lawmakers get $172 for each day they are in Albany, as a way to pay for meals and lodging. The governor wanted to move away from per diems and toward requiring lawmakers to produce receipts for additional costs. The agreement with the Assembly just requires lawmakers to provide proof of being in Albany on days that they receive per diems. Also a fairly modest new requirement.
4. New restrictions on the use of campaign contributions for non-campaign activities. Current law prohibits lawmakers from using the campaign contributions they raise from lobbyists and other donors for “personal” expenses. But the law is riddled with loopholes that make it easy for lawmakers to spend money in a manner that essentially subsidizes their lives. The governor’s agreement with the Assembly would prohibit the use of campaign contributions on items such as residential home purchases, mortgage payments, rent, clothing, tuition payments, salaries for individuals not performing campaign work, and dues for country clubs and health clubs. These types of spending are rare, but the agreement does allow for the continued use of campaign contributions for meals or legal defense funds. Not much change here either.
5. Additional campaign finance disclosure requirements as well as beefed up enforcement for independent expenditures efforts.
In addition, the governor’s office mentioned an expansion of the lobbying law and the establishment of a compensation commission to determine appropriate salaries for lawmakers and the leaders of the executive branch.
Unfortunately, the governor’s plan sets up a commission of appointees by the governor and the legislative leaders with no metric for measuring whether a raise is appropriate, and if so how to determine the size of a lawmaker pay increase. A commission is a good idea, but it must be independent of the people who would benefit from its pay recommendations. Otherwise, it’s just a rubber stamp.
The deal does not touch the scandalous campaign finance system and it would do nothing to overhaul the state’s notoriously weak ethics enforcement entities.
So, what should New Yorkers make of this deal? It’s a “chicken soup” plan, one which cannot hurt, but is insufficient to handle the magnitude of Albany’s ethical maladies. It represents a huge missed opportunity.
New Yorkers should demand more.
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.