Last year was not a banner year for Albany politicians. In fact, it would be fair to describe 2015 as the Year of the Convictions. In 2015, former Senate Majority Leaders John Sampson (D-Brooklyn), Malcolm Smith (D-Queens), and Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre); former Senate Deputy Majority Leader Tom Libous (R-Binghamton); and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) were each convicted of official corruption charges.
Following this shameful, sordid display, there has been a good deal of talk about what can be done to reform our troubled state government. The reform proposals that have been offered fall into one of two categories: Government-empowerment proposals and voter-empowerment proposals. In Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2016 State of the State Address, he offered some of each.
On the government-empowerment side, Gov. Cuomo offered two proposals that have come to typify the Left’s approach to reform: Taxpayer funding of campaigns and limits on legislators’ outside income. New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms opposes both ideas. Taxpayer funding of campaigns merely saddles taxpayers with another fiscal burden; also, it fails to achieve its stated goal of getting money out of politics because it requires candidates to fundraise on their own in order to receive matching funds from the government. Limiting legislators’ outside income is a bad idea because it encourages legislators to become career politicians and insulates them from having the real-life experiences that other New Yorkers face in the workplace. (Additional disclosure requirements regarding outside income would be helpful, however, as such an approach would reveal potential conflicts of interest.) Gov. Cuomo also unveiled a new system whereby voters who apply for driver licenses will automatically be registered to vote unless they opt out of voter registration; this new system—while it will certainly yield more registered voters—empowers government by substituting government action for personal responsibility.
On the voter-empowerment side, Gov. Cuomo expressed support for a constitutional amendment requiring every elected official to forfeit his state pension if he is convicted of (or pleads guilty to) corruption charges. NYCF supports this common-sense proposal, which would protect against the misuse of tax dollars and give elected officials a greater incentive to avoid corruption. Gov. Cuomo also supports more frequent campaign finance disclosures and the closing of the existing LLC loophole that allows wealthy donors to bypass contribution limits. Finally, Gov. Cuomo spoke favorably of a potential constitutional convention; such a convention could—unless interfered with by politicians—turn out to be a voter-empowerment strategy for reform.
To their credit, Assembly Republicans put forward a platform of 17 government-reform measures on January 13. Unfortunately, all 17 of those measures were rejected by the Democratic majority.
New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms continues to support a voter-empowerment approach to government reform in New York that includes message of necessity reform; pension forfeiture; term limits for statewide officials and state legislators; tenure limits for legislative leaders and committee chairs; a ban on pork-barrel spending, whether controlled by legislators or by the executive; and initiative and referendum. However, the ultimate government reform measure is greater discernment by voters in selecting the people that we elect to represent us in Albany. To put it simply, we cannot realistically expect our Legislature to pass virtuous laws if greed and self-dealing continue to permeate the Capitol.
Given that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has announced that he will not be charging Gov. Cuomo with any crimes arising out of the abrupt closure of the Governor’s 2014 Moreland Commission, it is likely that the push for government reform will be back-burnered once again in Albany. If past years are any indication, it is likely that some reform measures will be passed to mollify the public, but that those measures will fall far short of effectuating meaningful change.