December 28, 2015

More Money is Not the Answer

Common Cause New York has released the latest information on outside income for New York's legislators. There's a lot of it for some of our elected officials, who make a minimum of $79,500 for their part-time jobs (those in leadership positions make quite a bit more).

The chart at right shows where the outside money comes from, by industry. Not surprisingly, the majority of members with outside income are lawyers; after all, they're lawmakers. 

Common Cause notes that, on the plus side, some 60% of legislators elected before 2014 report no outside income, and they surmise that "many, if not all" of the new class of legislators no longer hold their day jobs. 

The group also believes that, in light of the recent guilty verdicts for former State Senate leader Dean Skelos and former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, the time is now to make some changes.  And up to that point, I agree with them -- we differ, however, on how to fix the problem.

Common Cause would like to see the following changes
  • A ban on outside income
  • a full-time legislature
  • a pay raise for members
Their thinking is, if we turned the legislators into full-time employees of New York taxpayers, and gave them a raise, they wouldn't need to have outside income. And if they don't have outside income, they can't be 'bought' by outside interests.

My thinking is, if they're ethical people, it doesn't matter whether they're paid more or work full time or are allowed to continue earning income as veterinarians or funeral directors or owners of ice cream stands. I don't think it's necessary for them to figure out ways to convert their businesses into trusts or whatever it is they'd need to do in order to remove themselves from their 'real' careers while they served part time as our representatives.

We need our elected officials to stop looking at their seats as permanent possessions, as jobs for life instead of what they should be: short-term opportunities to serve the public. I want them to have jobs and families and careers and lives outside their public service - because I think they'd be better public servants. I want there to be teachers or auction house owners and all the rest, working part time for the citizens of New York. I'm perfectly OK with that.

What I do have a problem with, is how long some of these folks have been in office. 

In the Assembly, Gary Finch, the funeral services guy, was elected in 1999. Will Barclay was elected in 2002. Stephen Hawley, the big winner in the outside income game, was elected in 2006. 

Over in the Senate, it's even more glaring. Kenneth LaValle was elected in 1976, the year I got out of high school.

Skelos, one of the Three Amigos our Sonofa Gov Andrew Cuomo giggled about earlier this year at his economic speech, was elected in 1984. Kemp Hannon, 1989; Mike Nozzolio, 1992.

Is it the outside income that's the issue, or is it the amount of time these folks spend in Albany?

Is it outside income, or simply that some of them can't resist the benefits that come their way, the money to keep them in office, or jobs for their kids -- benefits that come to them because of the power they have, the power that comes with longevity?

Is it outside income, or is it the unending need to raise money for the next election, money from big donors who stand to benefit from laws passed by the people who receive the donations?

If you ask me, we do not need full-time legislators with bigger salaries and bigger pensions. We need term limits and we need real campaign finance reform.

  • If a legislator is not worried about the next election, and instead is focused on serving the public for the term of the election they just won, we'll be better off. 
  • When a legislator doesn't need to protect a pension, and instead is focused on protecting the environment, or jobs, or dwindling tax dollars, we'll be better off.
  • When a legislator knows that they can't use campaign funds for whatever they please, we'll be better off. 
  • When a legislator knows that they have an equal opportunity to participate, and that their constituents will have equal representation, we'll be better off. 
  • When we elect people who know what the rules are, know they're going to be held accountable to the rules, and know that there will be no personal nest-feathering allowed, we'll be better off.

It all starts with term limits.