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Foss: Legislature failing at ethics reform

Foss: Legislature failing at ethics reform

Lawmakers fail to tackle tough issues
Foss: Legislature failing at ethics reform
The state Capitol Building in Albany.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

One thing I remember about school: Some assignments are hard.

Some are easy.

The best way to ensure a good grade is to do well on the easy assignments, since you're more likely to struggle with the hard assignments. Get the easy stuff done, and you'll have more time to spend tackling more difficult material.

It's a valuable lesson — one our state Legislature would do well to learn.

Every year the legislative session is dominated by an issue that's important, but not as important as the endless negotiations, discussions and "will this pass this year or not?" chatter would make it seem.

This year the issue is legalizing upstate ride-hailing. Last year it was legalizing mixed martial arts.

It's not that these issues aren't worthy of our attention.

It's that they dominate our attention, crowd out other, more important matters and waste entirely too much time. They're easy assignments, but lawmakers treat them like hard ones, which might explain why the biggest issue facing the state is never addressed at all.

Corruption in state government remains a huge problem. Last year indictments were issued for nine men, including two ex-aides to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former SUNY Poly head Alain Kaloyeros, in connection with a federal corruption probe.

You'd think this most recent scandal, combined with the downfall of the Legislature's two most powerful leaders, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, would be cause for reform.

But there's been even less discussion of ethics this year than last, and I suspect lawmakers are hoping the issue gradually fades from public consciousness.

When it comes to reform, they have yet to tackle the easy assignments, much less than hard ones.

This could be changing: Last week the state Legislature passed a bill that would strip lawmakers convicted of corruption crimes of their pensions.

This legislation will go before voters for approval in November, and it's a no-brainer, a common- sense proposal that should have been passed years ago. It's also a weaker bill than it should be, as my colleague Mark Mahoney noted in a Sunday editorial on this topic.

For one thing, it doesn't require that pensions be forfeited upon conviction, instead leaving it up to a court to decide whether to strip a lawmaker of a pension, or simply reduce it. Remember, this legislation applies to legislators who have been convicted of serious crimes. There's no reason on earth to be lenient when it comes to their generous taxpayer-funded pensions.

So while I'm happy to see the Legislature finally approve the pension forfeiture measure, I'm also disappointed.

Approving pension forfeiture should have been easy.

The fact that it wasn't doesn't bode well for more complicated ethics reforms, such as banning outside income and tightening campaign finance rules.

But isn't that always how it goes?

Some issues — mixed martial arts, ride-hailing — get easier over time.

Ethics reform, from what I've seen, never does.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's. Her blog is at http://dailygazette.com/blogs/thinking-it-through.

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