Whether Andrew Cuomo wants to run for president or just restore his fading luster as governor, there’s a way: lead, and win, a battle to clean up the corruption that demeans politics and threatens democracy in New York state. He can’t piecemeal it, as he himself has said. His actions have to be big, bold and comprehensive.
The governor’s previous attempt at ethics reform two years ago didn’t quite qualify. While it did introduce some useful financial disclosure requirements and create an independent ethics body to investigate and punish unethical behavior in both the legislative and executive branches, that body, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), does most of its work in secret. Cuomo also has not championed campaign finance reform, as he said he would, and specifically publicly financed elections, which could do a lot to take the big money out of politics. And he caved on redistricting for the 2012 elections, after promising that he would not approve any map that was not independently drawn.
But now he has another chance, as the scandals that have bedeviled the state for years, and that Cuomo promised to address by cleaning up Albany, just keep coming. The most recent, two weeks ago, featured the FBI’s arrests of a sitting state senator and state assemblyman, one for giving bribes (to get the Republican nomination for New York City mayor), the other for accepting them (in return for legislation).
After speaking in generalities and generally trying to lower expectations in the days immediately following the arrests, Cuomo last week offered some specific proposals that could actually change attitudes and behavior. They include: tougher penalties for breaking existing corruption laws; some new, more-easy-to-prosecute laws; more power for prosecutors to combat public corruption; and a requirement that public officials report corrupt acts by their colleagues.
These proposals have real promise, but they are not yet part of a specific bill. It’s not enough to propose them, but to make sure they are adopted. And they aren’t enough. To be comprehensive, and effective, they have to be coupled with such things as campaign finance reform and an independent commission to investigate public corruption, something else Cuomo has often talked about in the past but never followed through on.
Cuomo also raised the possibility of making the Legislature full-time. Taxpayers won’t like it, but it should be seriously considered as part of a carrot-and-stick approach to discourage corrupt behavior. As Cuomo points out, many legislators are lawyers and business operators, and “the number of potential conflicts goes way up.”
Making the job full-time would cost more money in salary, but if you took away the per-diems and leadership stipends that almost all of them get, not that much more. It would also increase their pensions, another carrot, which could be offset by a big stick: legislation that would take away the pensions of public officials convicted of crimes involving political corruption.