When it comes to reducing corruption, favoritism and unethical conduct in state government, there are much higher priorities than term limits for statewide elected officials and limits on their outside income.
So let’s hope that when Gov. Kathy Hochul delivers her first State of the State message on Wednesday, she offers more than the low-hanging fruit she proposed on Monday.
In keeping with the past practices of her predecessors, Gov. Hochul teased her agenda-setting speech with a few highlights.
On Monday, she proposed limiting the state’s four statewide offices — governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general — to two consecutive four-year terms. In addition, she proposed a ban on earned outside income (outside of teaching) for the holders of those offices.
Far from the “bold ethics reform” she touted in the headline of her press release, these changes represent a poorly disguised slight to her predecessor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a three-term governor who was likely on his way to a fourth when he was forced to resign in August over sexual harassment allegations and the threat of impeachment.
The ban on outside earned income is also a nod to Cuomo, who signed a controversial $5.1 million deal in 2020 to write a book on his leadership during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic — a deal a state ethics panel is seeking to undo.
The proposals are weak tea compared the major ethics overhaul that’s needed in this state, including the creation of bipartisan, independent, transparent state ethics committee to replace the ineffective and governor-controlled Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).
Reforms also are needed to further reduce the influence of outside money on elected officials; to bring more transparency to the state budget, economic development and state contracts; and to expand and strengthen the state’s transparency laws to allow the public more access to government records.
Yes, politicians tend to accumulate excessive power and influence the longer they’re in office, and therefore are exposed to greater temptations to abuse their office for personal gain. But that’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who is closing out his third term, has never offered a hint of scandal. Is it right to force a competent, ethical public officer out of office based on arbitrary term limits just to distance yourself from your predecessor?
The new governor also must have forgotten that there are 213 state legislators who also have power over budgets and legislation, and who are also subject to outside influences. Why were they excluded from the governor’s proposal for term limits?
The governor can best be credited with making a gesture toward necessary ethics reform.
Let’s hope Monday’s proposals are only the beginning.