Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, in January with Senate Majority Leader...

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, in January with Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, center, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Credit: AP

At the conclusion of his Tuesday speech presenting next year's budget, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made a passionate plea for a comprehensive ethics bill, calling it his top priority besides balancing the state's books. The two issues are actually quite similar in nature, because both are systemic, long-term problems that threaten our future and have proved devilishly difficult to fix.

The proposing and crafting and watering down and eventual defeat of ethics reform is a constant in Albany, a feature of every governor's reign and every legislative session. Most recently, Gov. David A. Paterson vetoed a fairly weak set of rules last February, saying it would not have solved all, or enough of, the problems in the system.

What's clear is that bills that take on ethics reform, campaign finance reform and the redistricting process all in one bite are likely too complex and draw too many objections to pass. All are necessary, but demanding that they come in one tidy package may be too much to ask.

What Cuomo is calling for, and apparently working with Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to craft, is a bill that would create income and client disclosures, an ethics investigatory commission and lobbying rules. All three are important, but it's the income and client disclosures that would do the most to fix the system, and restore our trust in Albany.

The state finds itself saddled with this problem because the job of legislator is considered part-time work. With annual pay of more than $70,000 per year (considerably more if you include stipends for chairing committees and other assignments) it brings a part-time income many folks would be glad to garner for a full year's labor, but because it is not considered full time, lawmakers are allowed outside income.

What we deserve isn't complex. Taxpayers have a right to know who, besides themselves, pays our elected officials, what services are rendered for that pay and how much money is involved. We have the right to know who paid them for a span of years before they were elected, and perhaps for a few years after they leave office, so we can gauge whether the money is influencing the official work of the politician.

The basic principal of transparency is one everyone claims to support, yet the law never makes it into the books.

If lawmakers also work as attorneys, voters have an absolute right to know if their clients are doing business with the state and how much those clients are paying. If lawmakers work as consultants, or in public relations or even as engineers, voters should know who is hiring them and what services are being rendered.

Influence peddling corrodes both the workings of government and the trust of the people, and no one law is going to eliminate it. Forcing our elected officials to disclose who fills their wallets would be a good start, though, and passing a law that guarantees it should be a top priority.

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