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Ethics plan a major step -- and challenge -- for Albany

The state Capitol building in Albany.

The state Capitol building in Albany. Credit: Bloomberg News / Ron Antonelli

The ink on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposed ethics reform agreement with Assembly and Senate leaders is still wet, but the deal itself is apparently solid. The questions then, are, how would the reforms play out in reality, and how big a raise would these elected officials be granted in exchange for going along with the changes?

Making legislators swipe an electronic card in Albany to get their $172 for any day they claim to be there is a slam dunk. We're glad it's in the bill, though disappointed that an honor system didn't work.

Also highly desirable: a constitutional amendment to confiscate the pensions of any state lawmakers and public officials convicted of crimes related to their work. This most popular and clear-cut reform would eventually require voter approval on the 2017 ballot.

The proposed new limits on spending campaign funds for personal expenses don't have much bite, but banning the use of those donations for country club memberships and child care is a start.

The toughest fight was over disclosure of almost all outside income, what was done to earn it and who paid it. Currently, legislators just have to report the firm or business and the general amounts. Under the proposed reform, all legislators earning more than $1,000 would have to identify the sources. For more than $5,000, they would have to name actual clients, with a few exceptions for clearly private types of work. Those "rainmakers" who don't specifically have clients would have to detail what they did to earn their money.

Rather than blanket disclosure, as the Assembly first approved, the Senate watered down the bill to include an intermediary. The deal calls for the state's Office of Court Administration, which checks for conflicts of interest among judges and practicing attorneys, or the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, to rule on lawmaker requests to shield certain clients from disclosure.

Few such exemptions should be granted, or this could become a loophole neutering the intent of the law. If all these clients weren't seeking to buy influence over legislation, contracts or regulatory issues, lawmakers wouldn't have any worries. But there will always be those willing to skirt the rules. Prosecutors must remain vigilant, and the Office of Court Administration and Joint Commission on Public Ethics must be skeptical of requests to hide disclosure.

The other thing that deserves close scrutiny is a commission that would discuss the first legislator pay raise since 1999. Legislators now earn base salaries of $79,500, and we have said that if they get a significant raise, it should be in exchange for becoming full-time legislators and giving up all outside income. Ideally, this plan would move our officials in that direction.

Nothing is ever set in stone, including the expected raises. Depending on what the new pay is and how well legislators comply with the new disclosure rules, demands for even more information or an end to outside income might be the next step.

The public outrage over Albany corruption finally pushed lawmakers to make a deal. Hopefully, this time it will benefit all of us.