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NY legislators should work full time or disclose their private clients

Assembly members discuss and vote on the state

Assembly members discuss and vote on the state budget on the floor of the chamber on Monday, March 31, 2014 in Albany. Credit: Philip Kamrass

The argument in Albany over ethics reform is upside down.

The issue isn't about stopping bad people from committing crimes. It's about changing Albany's notorious pay-to-play culture in which laws and policy seem to favor the connected. So let's stop talking about the right of a couple hundred elected officials to make some money from outside jobs, and the handful who earn an awful lot. Let's talk about the right of 19 million New Yorkers to be assured their representatives put constituents first. Let's start talking about how trust can be restored.

The best system would make membership in the State Legislature a full-time job, banning practically all outside income earned from working. That would draw a clear line: You work for the people, and that's where your allegiance must be. It can be done. It's how the U.S. Congress works.

Today, New York has a part-time legislature. Members earn $79,500 a year, plus stipends, and are allowed to earn unlimited money from other sources.

Many don't earn much or any outside income. But some do as lawyers, real estate agents, investment advisers or other occupations. The potential for conflicts of interest is great, and rules requiring the disclosure of the sources of that income are too lax. Legislators who are lawyers, for instance, can list their firms as sources of income and don't have to identify each client. That lack of disclosure is one of the reasons former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) faces criminal indictment and what led to federal criminal charges against former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican from upstate.

The public has a right to know a lawmaker's clients and what the lawmaker does for those clients. How else can we be sure they aren't being paid just for the power they wield? Isn't that known -- in a less polite way, and in indictments -- as influence peddling?

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said ethics reform is his No. 1 priority, and has spoken about making lawmakers full time. But he's more ardently championing a five-point ethics proposal that would require total disclosure of outside income, reform stipends, further restrict the use of campaign funds, increase disclosure of campaign donations and mandate forfeiture of convicted lawmakers' pensions. The last one would require amending the state constitution. And he has tied the reforms to passage of the next state budget, which is due on April 1.

While some lawmakers say they support the idea of a full-time legislature with better pay and restricted outside income, many oppose it. One defense is that without members who have outside jobs, the legislature would lose real-world expertise -- the romantic notion of a citizen legislator. But even though members of Congress can't hold other jobs, current and recent local federal representatives include a war veteran, a district attorney, a fireworks manufacturer, a nurse and a university provost.

We asked Long Island's 31 Senate and Assembly members whether they support a better-paid full-time legislature that couldn't work other jobs, and whether they support full disclosure of outside income. Most did not want to give yes or no answers. It's hard not to conclude that the legislators think voters don't care, and that lawmakers can duck approving stricter rules.

Besides the tough disclosure rules, how does Cuomo's plan hold up if we can't have a full-time Senate and Assembly? Pretty well. The things he wants would make a difference in tamping down the legal ways legislators can abuse the system.

The $172-per-day stipend legislators get for physically being in Albany is abused in particular. Rules and enforcement that let campaign funds be spent on personal expenses like meals and travel are too lax. Lawmakers convicted as criminals should be stripped of their pensions.

If a lawmaker receives outside income from private sources but did no work, we want to know why. No high-ranking official should be allowed to earn money without taxpayers knowing who paid and for what.

Serving in the legislature is a privilege. If our public servants don't want to play by rules that ensure we get honest representation, surely willing and qualified replacements can be found among the 19 million residents of New York.