The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics meets...

The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics meets in November 2018 in Albany. Credit: Albany Times Union

There has never been a better time to clean up Albany.

Gov. Kathy Hochul assumed power last year on the heels of multiple ethical lapses by her resigned predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo. The State Senate and Assembly are controlled by Democrats who have spent years saying they’re serious about improving New York’s political ethics. We are in the height of budget season, the period when Albany leaders use the cudgel of funding to ram through many of their big policy priorities. That in itself is not an ideal system, but it’s the one we’re working with at the moment, and the opportunity must be seized.

Hochul and the legislature must prioritize holding public officials accountable. Here are some ways to start:

  • Overhaul the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the broken body that is supposed to oversee compliance with ethics laws. Currently, members are appointed by elected officials, and as we have seen over and over again that makes them beholden to those they're supposed to police. Hochul’s budget proposal suggests replacing JCOPE with a more independent organization overseen by a rotating board selected by law school deans or their designees. Past legislative proposals have floated other ideas to reform the commission, such as having members appointed by all three branches of government. A compromise is needed: This can’t fall by the wayside yet again.
  • Bolster the independence and power of the inspector general. The state IG is supposed to help root out executive branch corruption, fraud and abuse. But since the governor appoints this person, there’s an inherent conflict of interest. Giving other entities of government a role in choosing the IG would add crucial autonomy, as would a fixed term for the position, separate from the governor's.
  • Improve campaign finance scrutiny. Hochul’s budget proposal rightly funds a pending state public campaign finance program to encourage candidates to focus on small-dollar donations. But the campaign finance system in New York is still the Wild West, with individuals currently allowed to give statewide officials tens of thousands of dollars for their bids, and too little enforcement of the limits that do exist for entities like LLC’s. The money floodgates have often benefited those in power or near it, including Hochul. There are a range of legislative proposals that should be considered to better police campaign finance, including a plan to redirect certain campaign funds from disgraced elected officials.
  • Eliminate the pay-to-play culture that allows large donors to benefit from government contracts or influence lawmakers in setting the legislative agenda.

Hochul uses the rhetoric of ethics reform effectively — but talk will not be enough.

Albany has shown it cannot monitor itself. Strong, independent mechanisms to ensure clean conduct are needed.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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