Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Ethics Bill: What Now?

This evening, Governor Paterson vetoed the ethics bill as promised. We’re glad that the legislature will be forced to revisit this important issue. But even if the governor had signed the bill, the next steps that the legislature needs to take would have been essentially the same:

  1. Fix mistakes in the bill. As we wrote last week, the legislature’s bill requires other ethics oversight bodies to refer certain violations to the new commission on lobbying, but it does not grant the lobbying commission any authority to actually investigate those referrals (or, for that matter, anything else that comes to its attention by any means other than a random audit of reports filed by lobbyists or their clients).The legislature should amend the bill to correct this error.
  1. Consider the governor’s proposals. The ethics overhaul that the governor included with his budget bills includes several very good elements that the legislature’s bill does not, including:
    1. Optional public campaign financing. While the legislature amended the election law to create an enforcement unit within the state board of elections which will investigate alleged violations of the election law, it opted not to substantively change the financing of elections.
    2. Require all legislators, regardless of profession, to disclose all sources of outside income, including legal clients. The legislature’s bill exempts attorneys from disclosing outside sources of income, even though there is no legal or ethical justification for such a blanket exemption.
    3. Establish independent oversight of the legislature. The legislature’s bill subjects the executive branch to independent oversight, but retains oversight jurisdiction over itself.
    4. Prohibit legislators, except members of the legislature or candidates whose districts are located in whole or in part within forty miles of Albany, to participate in fundraising during the legislative session. No such provision exists in our current law, and the legislature’s bill did not disturb this.
    5. Provide for the forfeiture of any member or retired member’s pension if that person is convicted of a felony or any conspiracy to commit a felony, or any criminal offense committed in another state or district. This means that Bruno and Seminerio would not be allowed to collect their pensions. Under our current law and the legislature’s bill they still can.
    6. Expand the current anti-nepotism provision of the Public Officers Law to include having knowledge of any change of a relative’s employment status. In the Governor’s bill, it is no longer enough to not participate in any decision to hire, promote, discipline or discharge a relative for any compensated position; knowledge is key.

The legislature should seriously consider these reforms and subject them to public scrutiny, even if they are not sure that they could pass both houses. These reforms could be included in the budget vote, added to the current ethics bill as amendments, or introduced as separate legislation. Regardless, they merit serious public discussion at the very least.

  1. Hold hearings on the bill. The legislature missed the boat on hearings the last time, and it led to errors in the bill and weaker reforms than public opinion would seem to support. The legislature should give experts an opportunity to weigh in on the bill, including any technical fixes or amendments, through public hearings. Any new legislation should be subject to the same level of scrutiny.
  1. Debate, remake, and improve legislation. As we noted upon the ethics bill’s first passage, we were impressed by the substance of the debate surrounding the legislation. Legislators should put those sentiments and the knowledge they gain through public hearings on the legislation into action. Legislators should discuss ideas for improving the legislation as written and work to make it better.

This post was drafted with the invaluable assistance of Amanda Rolat.

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