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Foss: Require lawmakers to release tax returns

Foss: Require lawmakers to release tax returns

Foss: Require lawmakers to release tax returns
Andrew Cuomo delivers his proposed state budget at the Capitol on Tuesday.
Photographer: New York Times

Buried in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 300-plus-page state of the state message is a quietly radical idea: requiring all statewide elected officials to make their tax returns public.

The idea is that forcing lawmakers and other public officials to reveal where their income comes from promotes openness, ethical behavior and sound decision-making.

"With full transparency, the public does not have to wonder if their representatives have unknown, self-serving motivations," the proposal states.

New York has a long and not-exactly-storied history of corruption at the state level.

Just this week, news that former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, twice convicted of using his office to enrich himself, will be resentenced provided yet another timely example of why reform is needed.

Cuomo's agenda for 2020-2021 is distressingly light on ethics reform.

The tax-return proposal is the only reform highlighted in his state-of-the-state message, and it stands little chance of becoming law. Lawmakers don't want to disclose their tax returns, which makes it pretty much dead on arrival.

Which is too bad, because requiring public officials to disclose their income is a good idea - an anti-corruption measure that will shed light on potential conflicts of interest and paint a more complete picture of politicians' financial dealings.

Cuomo's proposal goes beyond state government.

It would apply to any elected official in New York earning more than $100,000 - a category that includes Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy, whose salary for 2021 is $100,568, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, who makes $135,000, and Schenectady County Sheriff Dom Dagostino, who earns $112,000 annually.

Much of the discussion over whether politicians should release tax returns has focused on President Donald Trump, who has famously refused to do so.

I believe presidents - and presidential candidates - should release their tax returns.

But I also believe there's a lot to be gained from requiring politicians at all levels to release this information.

Some might argue that the information is private, but I would draw a distinction between private citizens and public officials who ostensibly serve their constituents. Public officials give up some of the expectations of privacy that the rest of us have when they run for office.

Cuomo's tax return proposal isn't a panacea, even if he attempts to portray it as such, describing it as a law that "will make our government the most transparent in the nation."

Frankly, that's laughable.

There's a lot more that needs to be done to make New York state government the most transparent in the nation.

For starters, reporters throughout the state have been complaining about the Cuomo administration's slow response to Freedom of Information Law requests for years.  

But I digress.

We'd all benefit from knowing a bit more about how our elected officials make their money.

Cuomo's proposal won't go anywhere.

But it should.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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