Reform Groups React to Governor’s Ethics Package, Push Clean Conscience Pledge
- Susan Lerner
Deliver open letter evaluating Cuomo's proposals for ethics, elections and oversight
NEW YORK, NY — One week after Governor Cuomo’s State of the State and budget address, Common Cause/NY, Citizens Union, and NYPIRG reacted to his proposals for ethics, elections, and oversight in an open letter. The reform groups again urged lawmakers and the Governor to sign on to the Clean Conscience pledge to close the LLC loophole, ban/limit outside income for lawmakers, and increase transparency in discretionary funding decisions as the minimum response to the systematic corruption in Albany.
The governor’s ethics legislation addresses the LLC loophole and outside income planks of the pledge, but does not yet propose increased transparency of discretionary funding by elected officials. As a complete package, the pledge addresses the matters at the heart of the recent Silver and Skelos trials in which two juries rejected the Albany status quo as not only unethical, but criminal. Currently, the pledge has bipartisan support from 21 lawmakers including the Independent Democratic Conference in the Senate. The governor has not as of yet endorsed the Clean Conscience Pledge.
“We need a proportional response to address the systematic corruption in Albany, which at the minimum includes the Clean Conscience pledge. Although the Governor has laid out some excellent proposals, two out of three is not enough. Albany cannot begin to live down the spate of scandals if it’s unwilling to live up to the public’s expectations. Talk is cheap, and it’s time to get to work,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.
“Albany’s unprecedented scandals offer Governor Cuomo an historic opportunity to rewrite New York’s ethics, campaign finance, and election laws,” said Blair Horner, NYPIRG Executive Director. “The governor has offered up a comprehensive package of reforms, an important first step. But the governor must now match the breadth of his proposals with a vigorous effort to push the Legislature to adopt a limit on outside income, close the LLC campaign finance loophole, and to boost budgetary openness.”
“We welcome the ethics proposals outlined in the Governor’s State of the State and his willingness to act in response to the culture of corruption that continues to plague Albany. However, to truly fix the problem of corruption, we must get to the root. By passing the comprehensive reforms outlined in the Pledge and the Governor’s proposals, our lawmakers will boldly illustrate to New Yorkers their commitment to restoring public trust and integrity. The time to act is now,” said Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizens Union.
The governor properly invoked the Congressional model to limit outside income to 15% of lawmakers’ $79,500 base pay. However, he only proposed the ban on “royalties from the sale of a book” and “advanced fees” for the legislative branch. This should be amended to include all statewide elected officials. In contrast, the proposal for closing the LLC loophole fully addressed the way parties, candidates, and donors circumvent the corporate cap on campaign contributions.
The governor’s plan cites allowing the public to “access more information about where and how money flows from the state to private citizens.” To do so, he proposes that both of those offices and the Office of General Services develop a plan to better allow the public to track state contracts.
However, additional steps can, and must, be taken regarding the distribution of grants by elected official through lump sum appropriations and other discretionary funds.
In its 2015 report, Spending in the Shadows, Citizens Union found $2.9 billion in opaque “lump sum funds,” in the FY2015-2016 budget, which allow spending decisions to be made in the shadows by elected officials after the budget is passed. The whopping $2.9 billion was divided into 95 separate pots, sprinkled throughout the budget. The continued existence of these opaque funds points to the need for public disclosure to eliminate conflicts of interest and ensure their proper public use.
The governor also proposed two other important reform measures: a voluntary system of publicly financed elections, and forfeiture of pensions by public officials convicted of corruption.
The governor proposed several measures to make voting more accessible and efficient. Early voting is already available in 37 states, and the governor would replicate this proven strategy to make voting easier for all New Yorkers particularly seniors and people with disabilities.
The governor’s plan for automatic voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles (“DMV”) is also a positive step, but should be expanded to all state agencies.
Many urban residents as well as those of modest means, do not have contact with the DMV. The lowest voter participation rates include this demographic.
The governor’s plan extends the provisions of the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (“JCOPE”), authorizes JCOPE to seek documents in support of information on financial disclosure statements; increases enforcement authority against lawmakers who failed to comply with JCOPE audits; and creates district attorney oversight over those who submit deceptive information. The bill also requires lawmakers to put the exact amounts of their outside income on disclosure forms (rather than ranges of income), and imposes financial penalties for all violations of the Public Officers Law regulating ethics.
While these are a good start, there should be structural reforms made to JCOPE as well.
For example, the JCOPE board should have a smaller number (and odd number) of appointees; allow for appointments by the state Comptroller and Attorney General; eliminate the three-member minority legislative “veto” over investigations; and prohibit elected officials from sitting on JCOPE’s board since it regulates the lobbying industry, a tremendous source of campaign contributions. In addition, the executive director and other staff should not be hired directly from the executive or legislative branches. A state government employment “cooling off” period should be part of the law.
In a related area, the package includes a good measure that would require political consultants advising elected officials to register as lobbyists.
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- Good_Goverment_2016_Ethics_Letter_to_NY_Leg_Leaders___Jan_20_2016.pdf: http://app.readmedia.com/news/attachment/74129/Good_Goverment_2016_Ethics_Letter_to_NY_Leg_Leaders___Jan_20_2016.pdf
- Good_Goverment_2016_Ethics_Letter_to_Cuomo___Jan_20_2016.docx: http://app.readmedia.com/news/attachment/74130/Good_Goverment_2016_Ethics_Letter_to_Cuomo___Jan_20_2016.docx