In 1882, 23-year-old Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Albany as a new Assemblyman, representing Manhattan, ethical but determined to get things done. In his first session, he sponsored legislation he thought was critical. It also happened to be important to the powerful Manhattan Elevated Railroad and its executive, Jay Gould.
The bill, to expand railway terminal facilities, faced inexplicable delays, held up by corrupt legislators, who withheld their support until copious campaign contributions began to flow to them and their party organizations. Roosevelt was sidelined, and in the end, the bill was slipped into the pile of legislation passed during the middle of the night in the last hours of the legislative session.
The system worked for everyone involved -- except for the public it was meant to serve, and the public interest in good government.CartoonCartoon: Conflict of interestCommentSubmit your letterCartoonDavies' latest cartoon: Transition of power
Today it may seem that we are living in a golden age of graft, and that corruption in Albany is worse than ever. That is not true. It feels that way because we have more vigorous prosecutors on the job than ever before, uncovering acts of corruption that benefit the few at the expense of the rest of us.
But we must ensure that the recent wave of public scandals leads to dramatic, uncompromising reform that finally allows the people's voice to be heard over the powerful whispers of special interests.
Allowing legislators to earn outside income invites corruption. Past tweaks to disclosure requirements have failed to stop corruption and more tweaks now will fail, too. We must ban outside income altogether. And we should replace the existing "per diem" system with actual reimbursement for actual expenses.
This must go hand-in-hand with a substantial salary increase for legislators, so that we may attract more of the brightest to the legislature.
In the same vein, if we move power from legislative leaders to individual legislators, more good people will want to run for the legislature. A decade ago, the Brennan Center for Justice found that New York's legislature was the most dysfunctional in the nation, in large part as a result of rules that provided for an almost dictatorial leadership structure. It's past time to loosen that grip.
New York State is also overdue for an overhaul of our campaign finance system: we need a statewide public matching funds system like the one that has worked well in New York City. And there are four rules changes that must be part of any package: dramatically reducing campaign contribution limits; closing the loophole that allows virtually unlimited contributions to flow through limited liability corporations; ending the lightly regulated party slush funds known as "housekeeping committees"; and tightening restrictions on campaign contributions made by entities and individuals with business before the state.
Finally, I propose a constitutional amendment that would be a game-changer: each legislative term should be four years, instead of two. Legislators should spend more time on governing and less on politicking.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed some reforms through the budget process. We should support his leadership in using this constitutional mechanism. In fact, I would urge the governor to hold out for bolder reforms, including the proposals mentioned earlier. In doing so, he would have the support of both the Constitution and the people of New York. A late budget would be a small price to pay, in the long term, if it delivers transformational change.
We must seize this moment, and think, speak and act more boldly. We must, right now, demand a state government that truly serves the public interest.
Eric T. Schneiderman is New York's attorney general.