BY TOM BASILE
Last week’s arrest of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver highlights the need for real political courage at a time when more than 80 percent of New Yorkers believe government corruption is a significant problem. People simply are sick of seeing their politicians do the perp-walk.
Since Silver’s arrest, we’ve seen more political payback, cover-your-butt politics from those who owe the political kingpin their careers – some of whom represent Rockland and Orange Counties. We’ve seen the same old Albany politics at the expense of discussing real reform.
Corruption is born out of a permissive environment – a system full of holes designed to enable powerbrokers to thrive and allowing self-dealing to embed itself in government, while the public is kept in the dark. The byproduct of political corruption is lower confidence in the system as a whole, which distances voters from the political process, thereby making that environment even more favorable for the unscrupulous.
Addressing this permissive environment isn’t brain surgery. While I have given this topic serious thought over time, I compiled these policy points on a Saturday afternoon while my kids were taking a nap. We need to fix a broken system and restore confidence not only in our institutions but also the many honest officials who approach their public service as a solemn public trust.
No one party has a monopoly on good ideas and the plan I lay out below represents proposals backed by Republicans and Democrats to address serious systemic problems. You might agree with some and disagree with others, but the state-wide conversation about all of these ideas – whether the likes of Sheldon Silver want it or not – must happen now.
- Finally make it law that any elected official convicted of a crime related to abuse of his or her office forfeit any pension or benefits associated with their service.
- Increase transparency requirements for all outside income. State legislators should continue to maintain their own businesses, hold jobs and be active members of their professions. People who live in the real world make for better legislators. However, sunshine is the best disinfectant and those who serve must be willing to disclose business income earned through actual work rather than merely leveraging their name and position.
- End the practice of nepotism – elected officials hiring family members in the jurisdictions they serve.
- Make it illegal for any elected official to earn income from additional positions of a government or quasi-government nature that have regulatory oversight or fiduciary responsibilities that touch their own municipality. If you choose to serve in elected office, racking up stipends from boards and commissions should not be one of the perks.
- Enact Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ plan to require legislators who are attorneys to disclose the names of all clients who do business with the state.
- Impose stricter conflicts of interest regulations on all elected officials.
- Forbid any elected official from advocating or voting to appropriate money to any non-profit organization or other interest group to which they or any member of their immediate family has financial or employment interest.
- Establish term limits for local, state and state-wide officials. This will open up the political process to new people, ideas and innovation while preventing the kind of entrenched empire building we all too often see among the political class.
- Prevent elected officials from serving as chairmen of political parties. This reform will help keep the political apparatus more independent and lessen the control of the party and its resources by one individual office holder.
- Establish a limit on the number of days the State Legislature can meet in any given year. New York is one of only 11 states that does not have such a limit. Setting limits will enable officials to spend more time in their districts and less time in Albany to play games with our money. A finite deadline will also ensure that the legislature is not wasting time on frivolous laws and instead working through legitimate policy in a timely fashion.
- Eliminate the two-year elected term across the board and extend terms to four years. The extension of terms for the legislature is supported by Common Cause New York. Even at the local level, running every two years is an expensive proposition and creates a significant burden on the official, the political process and donors that can impede the advancement of government’s work. It also gives more power to special interests. Instead of forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for campaigns as some favor, the system should be reformed so elected officials spend less time running for office and raising money in the first place.
- Enact the capacity for the public to force recall elections.
- Establish the ability for public referendum. This will enable citizen action to act as a counter to legislative authority. It will create a more vibrant public discourse about the future of our communities and will motivate greater voter participation.
- Stagger state legislative terms. The entire legislature being up for re-election at the same time fuels fierce competition for money and the power of special interests. Together with longer terms, staggering the terms will allow legislators to spend more time worrying about their districts instead of competing for donor collars and increase their independence from well-healed interests.
- Change the rules of the State Assembly to provide a check on the power of the Speaker and allow members of the minority party the ability to introduce legislation. Millions of New Yorkers are disenfranchised due to lopsided Assembly rules that squash any ideas from Republicans to make it to a vote – even in committee. That’s not the way to ensure fair representation for New York’s overtaxed 19 million residents.
Lasting and thoughtful reform is possible. Our legislature shouldn’t be held hostage by one man on the Lower East Side – or any one person. Our government shouldn’t sweep violations of the public trust under the rug. Our people deserve better than having their state be the poster child for politicians behaving badly.
It’s time for political courage to carry the day.
Tom Basile (R, I, C, WF) is Councilman in the Town of Stony Point, former executive director of the NY GOP