Convictions prompt calls for change in Albany

Dec 14, 2015

Following the recent convictions of two former legislative leaders, New York Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senator Timothy Kennedy says more needs to be done to protect taxpayers. Meanwhile, the head of a government watchdog group suggests the time has come to curb potential conflicts-of-interest by making state legislators full-time employees.

New York state capitol
Credit thirteen.org


Kennedy says the state constitution has to be changed so that convicted officials can be stripped of their pension retroactively.
    
"Because this state is spending way too much money to the tune of millions of dollars on pensions to former elected officials who have been convicted of corruption," said Kennedy

But State Senator Patrick Gallivan says laws are not enough to prevent corruption. Gallivan says with the November election in Erie County only drawing a 24 percent turnout, changes are needed to get more people involved in the political process including voting.

In order to make the change, both houses of the Legislature would have to approve the bill two years in a row and then put it to a public vote. A 2011 law only applies to officials convicted after the law took effect.  

Currently, state lawmakers are officially part-time status, although many will speak of the additional hours put in attending meetings, visiting public events and participating in other community gatherings. Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, points out that two-thirds of lawmakers who filed financial disclosures last year reported side income of $20,000 or less, if they earned any side income at all.

But that leaves a percentage of lawmakers who were pulling in significant dollars on the side. It's an environment which creates the potential for serious conflicts-of-interest. Lerner and her organization say it's time to curb those opportunities by making legislators full-time employees.

"We ought to rein in those very few who don't understand that their attention should be on the very real problems and concerns of people who elected them to serve," Lerner said. 

Lerner adds that her organization supports the idea of providing public funding for political election campaigns, in order to encourage more candidates who may have good ideas but lack the connections - and political war chests - to fund a campaign.