Blair Horner: The Governor Unveils His Reform Agenda

Jan 18, 2016

The staggering scandals and collapsing public confidence in state government created an opening for Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address.  Could he advance a comprehensive reform package that was commensurate with the unprecedented ethics, campaign finance and elections failings of the state?  His address was comprehensive:  The governor’s proposals – if enacted – offer significant remedies to those failings as well as to help restore the battered public confidence in Albany.

What is clear is that the central failing of state law is in the area of ethics.  The stunning and unprecedented scandals that have rocked the state Capitol are the direct result of the enormous failures of New York’s ethics oversight system.  This area deserves the most attention by the governor and the Legislature.  Reformers have argued that the central focus of policymakers must be in setting strict limits on outside income; closing the so-called limited liability company campaign finance “loophole,” among other reforms.

The governor’s package tracked those recommendations and added more.  His State of the State proposed reforms in key areas.

First, outside income.  The governor’s proposal goes a long way toward reducing the obvious conflicts of interest that result from allowing elected officials to have significant outside employment.  His proposal tracks the Congressional approach to limiting outside income by capping the amount of income a lawmaker can be paid.  

The Congressional system was an outgrowth of the Watergate scandal and has a proven track record of being effective in removing the kinds of outside conflicts that undermines public confidence in representative democracy.

As seen in recent scandals, this potential conflict exists in Albany and the recent convictions of elected officials underscore how lucrative it can be for lawmakers to inappropriately use the powers of their public office for private gain.

Second, treating Limited Liability Companies as the same as other businesses for the purposes of campaign contributions.  The governor proposes to close the so-called "LLC Loophole" in state election law that allows some business entities to donate much larger campaign contributions than other businesses.  The LLC Loophole allowed some to give enormous amounts of campaign contributions and played a part in the recent scandals in Albany. 

Third, the governor’s package advanced a number of additional measures designed to strengthen other state laws.  In the area of campaign finance the governor’s plan enhances disclosure by requiring that contributions that exceed $1,000 must be disclosed every 60 days; it requires the identities of campaign bundlers; it lowers campaign contribution limits; and establishes a voluntary system of public financing.

In the area of ethics enforcement, the governor’s plan extends the provisions of the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (“JCOPE”), authorizes JCOPE to seek documents in support of information on financial disclosure statements; increases enforcement authority against lawmakers who failed to comply with JCOPE audits; and creates district attorney oversight over those who submit deceptive information.  Finally, the governor’s proposal allows for the forfeiture of pensions by public officials convicted of corruption.

However, more must be done to fix the structural weaknesses in JCOPE.  For example, the JCOPE board should have a smaller number (and odd number) of appointees; allow for appointments by the state Comptroller and Attorney General; eliminate the legislative “veto” over investigations; and prohibit elected officials from sitting on JCOPE’s board since it regulates the lobbying industry, a tremendous source of campaign contributions.  In addition, the executive director and other staff should not be hired directly from the executive or legislative branches. 

In the area of voting and elections, the governor also advanced a plan that allows New Yorkers to vote early in all elections.  We agree.  The plan proposes automatic voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles (“DMV”).  However, such a system must be expanded to all state agencies.  Many urban residents as well as those of modest means, do not use the DMV.  The lowest voter participation rates include just those residents. 

So the governor proposed reforms across the board, not only to address Albany’s own “Watergate moment,” but to also enhance government openness and boost voter participation.  But actions speak louder than words.  Only time will tell if the governor is planning to fight for his proposals.

In particular, failure to enact the ethics reforms can be seen as nothing less than a failure of Albany’s political leadership.  Here’s hoping that this is a test Albany’s leaders will pass.

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

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