The great talk show host Johnny Carson, through his alter-ego Carnac the Magnificent, was once asked to divine the term of a state legislator.
His answer: “When they get caught.”
He wasn’t referring specifically to the New York state Legislature at the time, but he easily could have been.
As front pages across the state ran yet another photo of a New York state legislator glumly trudging out of a courtroom on Friday (former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos), the few lawmakers left in Albany who aren't under federal indictment have an obligation to themselves, the state and the voters to take steps to repair the situation.
They could do it in one fell swoop by passing in its entirety and without debate the latest ethics package put forth last week by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
The package isn’t the most comprehensive. And it won’t solve all of Albany’s problems. It doesn’t include the governor. And it includes more rules than punishments for violating those rules. And in fact, we don't necessarily agree with parts of it, like boosting legislator pay, doubling their terms of office and eliminating virtually all opportunities for outside income.
But the package covers a lot of ethical territory — including criminal activity, campaign finance reform, lobbying and per-diem abuses. One provision, for instance, expands the standard of criminal liability for bribery to include “intent” to influence a lawmaker. Another creates new felonies for officials who abuse their official positions for financial reward to themselves, family members or their business associates.
The proposal also bumps up the disincentives to discourage misconduct. Under the attorney general’s bill, spouses of disgraced lawmakers could no longer collect their pensions. It also amends definitions for determining when a pension should be forfeited. And it gives the attorney general new powers to prosecute public corruption.
On the campaign finance side — where influence peddling often begins — the AG’s bill would lower campaign contribution limits, close the LLC loophole that allows corporations to pump tons of money into campaigns, sharply limit campaign contributions from people or entities doing business with the state, and prohibit legislators from using campaign contributions to pay for their kids’ college tuition and clothing for themselves and their families. (Yes, that’s currently allowed.)
If there's more reforms to be made, they can do that later. But this one bill covers all the basics in a single package, and will go a long way toward winnowing out the bad apples and removing the temptations of running for office and serving as a legislator.
In addition, it has enough carrots, like the higher pay and longer terms, to make it financially beneficial for them to go along with the deal.
If you're not on the take and you have nothing to fear from losing your pension, then why wouldn’t you just pass this thing?
In a recently concluded Daily Gazette online poll, ethics reform came in a close second, right behind taxes, in a question asking readers to prioritize the Legislature’s agenda for the rest of the current session.
Voters care about this issue, and they're getting mighty tired of the parade of perps lining up in front of the state Capitol.
So if lawmakers want to get the ethics monkey off their backs as quickly as possible, begin to restore their reputation, and perhaps begin to mend their relationship with the New Yorkers they serve, they’ll pass the package as is.
Of course, when the bill officially lands on lawmakers’ desks in the next couple of weeks, it will be greeted with all the enthusiasm of a Thanksgiving turkey dropped out of a helicopter. So don't expect miracles.
But there are 211 members of the Legislature, and those good ones must be pretty fed up with being corralled into the same metaphorical (and sometimes actual) holding cell as their dishonest peers.
So do something about it. Pass the bill. Then move on to doing what you should be doing — solving the state's problems.