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Albany’s pension reform will need careful handling

Lawmakers in the New York Senate Chamber at

Lawmakers in the New York Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Albany on Friday, June 17, 2016. Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

Albany’s year began with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo championing a slate of strong ethics reforms in reaction to a seemingly endless sewer of corruption. It ended last week in a muddle.

Two good proposals — one to limit or ban outside income, the heart of so much corruption; the other to close a loophole that allows huge campaign contributions through limited liability companies — had no chance of success, a sad commentary on politics-as-usual in Albany.

But a bill to strip public pensions from officials convicted of corruption was approved, and that’s worth applauding — while recognizing this is step one in a process that must be kept on track. The legislation, a constitutional amendment that also must be passed by the next legislature and then approved by voters in a referendum, rightly casts a wide net. It would include all elected officials at all levels of government, from the state down to villages, as well as slews of appointed officials. Whether the bill, carried by Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville), would affect school superintendents like Frank Tassone, who looted the Roslyn school district of $2.2 million but still receives his $175,295 state pension, is open to interpretation by the courts. That’s unfortunate.

Now another Albany shell game could begin. Keep your eye on the ball. To implement the amendment, lawmakers must write guidelines to help judges determine whether stripping a pension would cause “undue hardship” on a spouse or dependent children. The guidelines should allow only a narrow range of hardship, mostly for dependent children. Punishment must be painful to be a deterrent.

The ethics reforms — including new disclosures for super PACs, political consultants and lobbyists — were passed in typical Albany style. Approval came literally in the middle of the night at the session’s end, with no opportunity for meaningful review by the public or many legislators before they were asked to vote on the measures. That’s deplorable. Instead of issuing a message of necessity to waive the three-day review period, the governor should have said it’s a necessity that lawmakers stick around for another three days so the bills to clean up Albany could be studied by the light of day.

Cuomo and lawmakers in both chambers did agree on other important legislation, such as measures to address the scourge of heroin and opioid abuse and to attack the problem of zombie homes. We also like a bill that mandates lead testing of water in schools, especially after 21 of the 36 Long Island school districts that told Newsday they had received results of voluntary testing found enough lead in their water to warrant fixes.

Notables whiffs: Failure to ban triclosan from personal care products and to pass pioneering climate change legislation that would have eliminated greenhouse gas emissions across the state by 2050.

Every legislative session has hits and misses. This one was no exception, but it will be viewed more favorably in the future if its modest ethics reforms become a springboard next year for more changes, championed more strongly and steadfastly by Cuomo, and not a reason for the legislature to think it has satisfactorily responded to the corruption that stains this state. — The editorial board