Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Kelly Williams: Do New Yorkers deserve better government, or really good government?

Governor David Patterson’s proposal to dismantle the Commission on Public Integrity and replace it with a smaller panel structured in a way to minimize political influence, with jurisdiction over legislators and expanded powers, would fill some of the voids in ethics oversight in New York State government, but more would be accomplished if Albany chose to open this process to scrutiny and debate.

In January 2007, newly-elected Governor Eliot Spitzer and legislative leaders announced the first major overhaul of New York State’s ethics laws in 20 years. Crafted behind closed doors, in typical fashion the package passed two months later without a hearing or discussion of possible alternatives and improvements. It was a lost opportunity: the reforms left in place New York State’s lax financial disclosure and campaign finance laws, and as we now know, created an oversight entity vulnerable to charges of undue influence from the executive. Also, legislators refused to cede oversight of their activities to an independent entity. The National Conference of State Legislators reports that thirty-three states have independent ethics commissions with broad enforcement powers over state legislators. New York is one of just a handful of states with separate, self-policing legislative bodies.

Should ethics reform be a business-as-usual behind-closed-doors kind of thing? Like spring flowers, reforms aimed at corruption and undue influence have been happening all around us: though far from perfect, legislators in Connecticut, North Carolina, Alaska, Illinois and several other states have passed various reforms that merit scrutiny and comparison, a buffet of alternatives for New York State. An open discussion (and vote?) would air alternatives and might result in innovative change based on tested systems.

Kelly Williams serves as Counsel in the Brennan Center's Finance and Operations Department.

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