Blair Horner: Whither Reform?

Nov 13, 2017

Last week, New Yorkers turned down an opportunity to call a constitutional convention. If it had been approved, delegates would have been elected and given the mandate to propose changes to New York State’s governmental blueprint.

But as it had in 1997, voters overwhelmingly rejected the option. Advocates for the convention argued that state government is a mess – plagued by corruption, its processes too inefficient and cumbersome, and one which relies far too heavily on secrecy in its decision-making. And polling said that New Yorkers wanted reform. According to a recent Siena Research Institute poll, New York voters – “regardless of party, geography, gender, race, income, or ideology – overwhelmingly support term limits for legislators and state elected officials, eliminating the LLC loophole, creating a system of initiative and referendum, and making the State Legislature full-time, with a ban on outside employment for legislators.”

So New Yorkers want reforms, but yet voted down the convention option with over 80 percent voting no. Why?

The opposition’s arguments were strongly focused on a key weakness of the convention process – how delegates would be selected. Under a process set in the state constitution, delegates would have been elected in a manner more or less the same as anyone else running for office. Opponents made the reasonable argument that who else but those in the political class could get enough petition signatures to get on the ballot, raise the necessary campaign contributions to successfully run, and then have the free time to serve in a convention?

Opponents argued that it would be redundant to what happens in Albany now, so why waste the money? It’s possible that things could get even worse.

Of course, a convention is a different venue than the legislative process, but nevertheless, voters were more concerned that bad things were more likely to come out of a convention, and said no.

Unfortunately, the current process hasn’t been responsive to the public’s demands for reforms, in fact quite the opposite.

So now what?

The critique offered by supporters of the convention – that Albany is a mess, is one shared by national experts. According to the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, “it's fair to say that New York remains one of the most corrupt states if not the most corrupt state."

2018 will see a number of high level corruption cases coming to a head. Former top aides to the governor are scheduled to have their corruption trials heard in the first half of the year and the retrials of the former leaders of the Assembly and Senate are likely to also be heard during that time.

Just as lawmakers are in session, the glare from these high profile cases may shine intensely on the governor and the state legislature. And 2018 is an election year, for all 213 lawmakers, the governor, the comptroller and the attorney general. All have run with a promise to clean up Albany, a promise that can be described charitably as one that is as yet unfulfilled.

Reformers, both inside government and outside of it, must roll up their sleeves and get back to work. It’s pretty clear that left to its own devices, the executive and legislature will advance proposals that sound good, but do little to achieve the cultural change that Albany needs.

Instead, an aggressive reform package must be advanced. A plan that includes:

  • New strict accountability measures that would result in an open, ethical, and efficient way to award government contracts, an area which was identified as a key problem in the indictments of the governor’s top aides.
  • Significant changes to the state’s campaign finance system, one which eliminates the advantages granted to Limited Liability Companies, advantages that are far more generous than ones granted to other businesses. LLCs have also been at the heart of some of Albany’s most troubling scandals.
  • Real limits on the outside income for legislators and the executive. Moonlighting by top legislative leaders and top members of the executive branch have triggered indictments by the federal prosecutors.
  • And the creation of a truly independent ethics enforcement.

Voters must hold their elected representatives accountable for what they do, not what they say, when it comes to battling corruption in state government. Next election day, New Yorkers should expect to have seen concrete changes to fix Albany’s ethics.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.