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NY Ballot Propositions Would Strip Pensions From Convicted Lawmakers

The New York State capitol in Albany
Dave Lucas

New Yorkers have the power on November 7 to decide whether some state officials convicted of a felony should be stripped of their pensions.

But the proposal would not apply to two former legislative leaders and several former associates of Governor Andrew Cuomo accused of corruption.

The ballot proposition before voters on Election Day would allow a judge to determine whether a state official convicted of crimes like bribery or bid rigging, should lose all or part of their pension.

But, there is one important limitation. The pension forfeiture provision would only apply to crimes committed after January 1, 2018.

That means the two former legislative leaders, who face potential retrial for crimes they are accused of committing during the first half of this decade, would get to keep their pensions. Both former Speaker Sheldon Silver and former State Senate Leader Dean Skelos saw their 2015 convictions overturned on appeal. Skelos, along with his son Adam, will be retried next year. And Silver could also be retried, depending on an expected ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.  

Nine former associates of Governor Cuomo, including the Democrat’s former closest aide, also face trials within the next year over an economic development corruption scandal. But because the alleged crimes took place in the past, they would also be allowed to keep their state pensions if they are convicted.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group agrees that the proposal is limited.

“People that are currently under investigation are likely not to be covered by this,” Horner said. “Unless they commit another crime after January 1, 2018.”

Under current law, public officials who began their jobs after 2011 are already subject to pension forfeiture if they commit felonies. So the ballot proposal applies to a small subset of public officers, those elected or appointed before 2011 and who commit crimes after 2018.

Horner says nevertheless, his group supports the ballot proposal.

“It’s like chicken soup, it can’t hurt,” Horner said. “Whether or not it will make a big difference in how people behave, I’m doubtful.”

The League of Women Voters also backs the proposal. But the League’s Jennifer Wilson says that the threat of pension forfeiture does not go far enough in fighting corruption at the Capitol. She says she would have liked Cuomo and the legislature to propose changes that would prevent corruption in the first place, like campaign finance reform instead of “punishment” after a crime is committed.

“We’d really like to see legislation in place to prevent these crimes from occurring,” Wilson said. “And prevent legislators from committing these corrupt acts while in office.”

Wilson says there is a proposal on the ballot next month that could potentially make bigger changes to prevent corruption. And that is the question of whether New Yorkers should hold a full constitutional convention, and open up the entire document to revision.   

Opponents argue that the event would be controlled by the existing political establishment, though, and they doubt whether much could be accomplished.   

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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