February 26, 2015

More Term Limits, Please.

Governor Cuomo is using his executive budget-making powers to force the legislature into a corner on ethics reform. Among other things, according to his 30-day budget amendments, he would:

  • eliminate the $172 per diem paid to each legislator when they're in Albany, and instead have them file expense reports just like state employees are required to do;
  • disclose all outside income over $1,000; not allow any compensation in connection with a bill or resolution; not refer lobbyists to any business the lawmaker is affiliated with; require lawyers, real estate agents and some others to provide a description for and the source of compensation; disclose any compensation of over $5,000 from a client/customer, as well as disclosing who the client/customer is, the work performed, and whether the services were related to any pending legislation; 
  • change the rules so that pensions can be forfeited by those folks who were elected before the pension forfeiture law was passed in 2011; and make it possible for prosecution of legislators for filing a false instrument (such as their disclosure statement), including a ban on holding office for five years or more;
  • expand the disclosure requirements on communications made with a certain number of days of a general, special, or primary election.

These budget amendments are in addition to or add clarity to changes the Sonofa Gov outlined earlier in February. And, in theory, these changes are fine.  I'm all for disclosure, and I've long been a proponent of eliminating the per diem  After all, we pay these folks $79,000+ per year; do we also have to pay them for showing up?

I have a few issues, however, with his approach.  This is the same governor, after all, who set up a fake Moreland Commission on ethics, and shut it down as soon as it got close to his end of the hall.  He's ignoring existing ethics venues that are already in place, which he could easily work to strengthen rather than ignoring them.

Further, I have a strong distaste for politicians who link unrelated items together (ethics and the state budget?) and for those who think that they're more important than the process as a whole, which is exactly what Cuomo is doing. I mean, what's your tolerance for a CEO who threatens to shut down the whole shebang if he doesn't get his way?

And have we been shown, in any way at all, that ethics reform is more important than the business of New York?  I don't believe we have.

Not only that, but his changes don't get at the heart of the issue, which is this: entrenched politicians, the ones who are around year after year after decade after decade, are really the cause of the ethics problem. It's the power that goes with all of that time in office, the power which is so attractive to outside influencers, and so susceptible to outside influence. If you have no power, you're harder to bribe.

Someone like Shelly Silver, for example, with his decades-long career, his big staff, fancy office, ability to bring legislation to the floor (or keep it from the floor), the ability to 'motivate' other members of the legislature to go along, and in return get nice assignments, bigger lulus, and so on -- that's the guy you want to have your hooks in if you're unethical, or as some like to say, "playing by the rules."

How do we stop them? Term limits.

Itemizing campaign contributions is good, eliminating the per diem is good, forfeiting pensions is good, but those things won't stop the madness that is inherent with entrenched politicians.

These were not intended to be lifetime jobs; people who think they are, are the problem.  And when they've been there so long that even the strongest made-in-New-York shoe horn is not enough to shake them loose, we need more than Cuomo's suggested reforms.

We need term limits. We need level playing fields so that all of the people who are elected to serve have a chance to do that, on equal footing with their gentle brothers and sisters from districts across the state.  We can no longer continue to have the system turned on its head by people who are allowed to stick around forever, who accumulate and wield a ridiculous amount of power based simply on longevity.

As we learned in seventh or eight grade, power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

More term limits, please.