Thursday, April 14, 2011

Senators Push for Hearing on Ethics

An “Arcane” Senate Rule? Only in NY.

known or understood by very few; mysterious; secret; obscure; esoteric.

“Arcane” was the word used yesterday to describe the Senate Democrats’ petition for a public hearing. Given that public hearings are such rare event in Albany, you might be inclined to think they only happen when a top-secret rule is employed. But the reality is that there is nothing mysterious, secret, obscure, or even esoteric about petitioning for a public hearing. The rules are quite clear and publicly available. Senators may force a public hearing with a petition signed by one third of committee members. Unless a majority of committee members vote to not hold a hearing, a public hearing must be held in 14 days.

Bravo to the Senate Democrats for finally using this rule in a very public way. We hope to see more of this type of thing -- it's the way legislature's are supposed to work. If some in the legislature are squelching efforts at transparency, at the very least, the public has a right to know who is responsible.

As we have said before, hearings provide an important opportunity for legislators to obtain important testimony from both experts in the field and the general public -- and to provide momentum for issues that many legislators would otherwise love to see go away -- like reforming the redistricting process, the State's ethics laws, or our campaign finance rules. State of Politics notes that the bills in question are on establishing an independent commission on governmental ethics; stripping elected officials convicted of misusing office of pensions; increasing financial and client disclosure requirements, restricting the personal use of campaign funds; and eliminating Pay-to-Play.

Given the recent and all too familiar corruption scandals, ethics reform should not be left up to three men in a room. As we recently wrote, our elected leaders need to regain their standing with the public by reforming a system that far too many see as corrupt and lacking legitimacy. Public trust simply cannot be restored without public input.

Monday, April 11, 2011

In Support of Voter-Owned Elections

In a joint op-ed in Sunday’s Buffalo News, former Republican Congressmen from New York’s 24th and 29th Districts, Sherwood Boehlert and Amory Houghton made the case for voter-owned elections in New York. Writing from experiences as politicians faced with raising funds for re-election campaigns, the former congressmen illustrate the need for reform by contrasting the status quo with a publicly financed system with voluntary matching funds.

A re-election campaign for the New York State Assembly costs an average of $130,000. For many legislators, raising this amount of money means they must host receptions at expensive restaurants and spend hours on the phone with wealthy donors, lobbyists, and special interests. However, Boehlert and Houghton note that if New York State were to adopt a system of publicly financed elections with a voluntary matching funds program, politicians would not have to resort to lobbyists and special interests to raise money. Instead, politicians would have an incentive to raise funds from small donors in the amounts of $10, $25, $50, and $100 which would be matched on a 4-to-1 ratio by a state fund. Politicians would be able to free themselves of special interest money, and focus more on their constituents.

Such a system is not pie in the sky. A similar system has been in use for many offices in New York City for nearly the past 25 years using a 6-to-1 matching system. The Brennan Center’s recent report on the New York City small donor matching funds system found that the system has both significantly increased the number of contributors and small donors as well increased diversity in competitive races.

Boehlert and Houghton along with other leaders in New York State recently pledged in this letter to work with Gov. Cuomo in his fight to pursue publicly financed elections in New York State, an issue he gave prominence in both his campaign and State of the State address.

An Independent Redistricting Commission: A Must for 2012

The Times Union ran an editorial on Sunday on the Senate Majority Leader’s argument on the constitutionality of an independent redistricting commission in New York State. The editorial calls out the Senate Majority for its position of supporting an independent redistricting commission during the last election and its current position that the plain is unconstitutional — thus requiring a constitutional amendment and delaying the process until the elections of 2022.

Through internal reviews of the governor’s proposal, the Brennan Center found no constitutional problems with the creation of an independent redistricting commission and also issued a statement commending the bill. The Times Union cites a recent memorandum by Weil, Gotshal and Manges LLP on the redistricting bill which noted that an independent redistricting commission would not intrude on the legislature’s constitutional powers, as any recommendation by the commission would still require final approval by the legislature.

The creation of an independent redistricting commission that would recommend fairly drawn districts before the 2012 election would signal an important step forward for our state legislators who have for far too long chosen their own voters.

For more on the Brennan Center’s work on redistricting, please visit our website, where you can access A Citizen’s Guide to Redistricting and other resources.

Still Waiting on the Promised Ethics Bill

The New York Times Saturday Editorial “Three Men in Room” adequately captures the irony behind the governor’s ethics reform negotiations with the Speaker of the Assembly and the Senate Majority Leader as plans to create a more open government are negotiated behind closed doors. On the table are the issues which form the backbone of a meaningful ethics reform package: the creation of a unified ethics commission, financial disclosure requirements of all outside income for public officials (including from the 45 attorney-legislators), and a system of publicly financed elections.

Aside from the irony of advocating for openness and transparency behind closed doors, recent history suggests that an ethics bill negotiated without public discussion will result in failure. As we have previously noted, Albany’s last attempt ethics reform, the Public Employees Ethics Reform Act (PEERA) of 2007, was negotiated, drafted and adopted without public discussion or debate. Since then, Albany has consistently continued to be rocked by scandals in the legislature and special interest money has continued to flood the state. An ethics bill that does not allow for public input will likely result yet another failure.

Now that the budget has been passed and the focus is on ethics the Three Men in a Room must make their draft bill available for public comment. The legislature must debate, hold hearings, and allow amendments on this bill. Good government groups, academics, reformists, current ethics overseers and the general public must be given the opportunity to review and comment on the bill. As the Times rightly notes: voters “are the governor’s best allies for real reform.”