2018 NYS Legislative Agenda: Bring meaningful and comprehensive ethics, voting, election law and rules reform to Albany

Support efforts to bring meaningful and comprehensive ethics, voting, election law and rules reform to Albany

Ethics Reform. New York State must implement tougher ethics reforms aimed not only at investigating and prosecuting ethics violations, but also at preventing them.  To that end, we support:

  • Limitations on Legislators’ Outside Employment. The City Bar recommends a cap on income earned by legislators from outside employment, accompanied by a significant salary increase.  Additional limits should be placed on the personal use of campaign funds, including a prohibition on the use of campaign funds to pay attorneys’ fees and costs associated with defending against investigations or prosecutions alleging violations of law that are not related to the candidate’s campaign, and a prohibition on the use of campaign funds for any household expenditures (such as clothing).
  • Reform of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.  The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (“JCOPE”) should be made into a truly independent and transparent ethics commission to oversee executive and legislative conduct.  Changes would include eliminating the ability of three commissioners of the same party and same branch as a person being investigated to block an investigation or issuance of findings, and requiring legislative ethics hearings to be conducted in public. Read “Hope for JCOPE.

VotingVoter participation in New York State has declined dramatically over the past half century and now stands near the bottom as compared to other states.  Much of the reason for this state of affairs is attributable to the fact that New York has failed to take actions undertaken by other states to increase participation by making it easier to register to vote and to cast a ballot.  The following reforms should be enacted to improve voter participation: (1) allow party registration up to 30 days before a primary election; (2) provide Election Day registration; (3) permit “no excuse” absentee voting; (4) provide for early voting; (5) make Election Day a work holiday; and (6) provide for felony re-enfranchisement.

Election Law Reform.  The low rate of voter participation is also the result of an electoral system that heavily favors incumbents—giving them legislative control of the redistricting process, party control of the election mechanism, and restrictive ballot access for candidates. Coupled with weak campaign finance regulation, these factors make it exceptionally rare for an incumbent legislator to fail to get re-elected; many run without opposition in both the primary and general election. 

  • Redistricting. New York State took a meaningful but incomplete step toward reforming the redistricting process when it adopted a constitutional amendment on this subject, which voters approved in 2014.  That provision, however, reserved to the Legislature the power to select members of the redistricting commission and to override its recommendations.  The City Bar recommends tightening the existing provisions on redistricting by establishing a fully independent and non-partisan redistricting commission.
  • Board of Elections.  The current Board of Elections consists of four members, two Democrats and two Republicans, and most Board employees involved in the registration and election process are chosen by those two parties.  That structure was the result of a previous reform that has had the unfortunate result of creating a body that is virtually always at an impasse and, therefore, unable to act effectively.  The two-party system for Board members and employees should be abolished and the Board should become a five-member, non-partisan board.  In addition, the Board should be provided with professional enforcement staff with appropriate powers.
  • Public Campaign Financing.  The City Bar supports establishing a system for public financing of elections, including public matching funds, to curb the influence of money in elections and help level the playing field for candidates.  Additionally, campaign contribution limits should be significantly lowered, the LLC and soft money loopholes should be closed, and full public disclosure of sources for all campaign spending should be required. 

Rules Reform. We encourage both houses to hold public discussions of their operating rules and ways they can be improved, in a manner that takes into account the public’s interest in having a Legislature that is transparent, deliberative and accountable to the citizens of the state.  We urge the adoption of new rules that will: (1) limit legislators to serving on a maximum of three committees in any given time period; (2) require committee members to be physically present to have their votes counted; (3) require that all bills must be accompanied with the appropriate fiscal and issue analysis before receiving a vote and that all bills voted out of committee be accompanied by committee reports showing the work of the committee on the bill; (4) mandate a ‘mark-up’ process for all bills before they are voted out of committee; (5) explicitly provide each committee with control over its own budget; and (6) institutionalize conference committees, so that when bills addressing the same subject have been passed by both chambers, a conference committee will be convened at the request of the prime sponsor from each chamber or the Speaker and Majority Leader.