Albany Reform Tops City Bar’s 2016 Legislative Agenda – Debra L. Raskin

Debra L. Raskin

President’s Column, February 2016

If the headline above looks familiar, that’s because it’s almost exactly the same as the headline of my column in this newsletter one year ago. A familiar refrain, “Reform Albany” is starting to take on the quality of an annual New Year’s resolution, except our personal resolutions typically involve changing ourselves, not reforming others. Government reform, on the other hand, requires a concerted and persistent effort by the public, reform-minded legislators, good government groups, the Governor and, sometimes indirectly, the judiciary, to persuade those in power to change the rules in a way that benefits the public, and not necessarily those in power. A tall order, indeed.

Fortunately,  rather than losing interest, giving up, or succumbing to fatigue on the issue, voters are once again demanding reform, perhaps emboldened by the recent felony convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, two of the “three men in a room.” And, the Governor appears to be listening. In his combined State of the State address and budget presentation on January 13th, Mr. Cuomo laid out an ambitious ethics reform package to be adopted with the Budget: restricting the outside income earned by legislators to 15% of a legislator’s statutory salary (currently $79,500); closing the “LLC loophole” so that limited liability companies are subject to the same campaign contribution limitations as corporations; implementing campaign finance reform measures to increase transparency, lower contribution limits, and create a statewide system of public campaign finance; subjecting the legislature to the Freedom of Information Law (with certain exceptions); and enhancing certain enforcement powers of the state’s ethics body, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE). This sounds like good news to those of us who want a state government that is transparent, effective, non-corrupt, and democratic. The question now is whether the Legislature will go along with what the Governor has proposed.

As our committees continue to analyze the language of the current proposals, I’d like to highlight two positive developments since I wrote my column one year ago. First, JCOPE is showing signs of embracing its authority to issue advisory opinions on significant issues, such as the relationship between large campaign contributions and access to government, and whether consultants should be registering as lobbyists under certain circumstances. Second, the Public Officers Law has been amended to require legislators who earn fees from a legal practice (or affiliation with a legal practice) to disclose more information about the amount and source of those fees. Neither is a perfect or complete solution, but they are two of the more noteworthy developments.

However, a few crucial reform items remain in political limbo, appearing nowhere in the Governor’s proposal and showing no signs of attention or movement during the past few legislative sessions. The first issue pertains to the structure of JCOPE. As it currently stands, a partisan minority holds veto power over the committee’s investigatory decisions. The law should be changed so that JCOPE can act by majority vote. In addition, the law should be changed to provide one commissioner appointment each to the Comptroller, the Attorney General, and the Chief Judge. By enacting these changes, the Governor and the Legislature can assure JCOPE’s true nonpartisan independence.

Second, we eagerly await proposed rules changes, promised by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, which are meant to increase legislative transparency. In the past, the City Bar has called for the adoption of new rules in both houses that would, among other things, institutionalize conference committees, require more reporting on legislative websites regarding a bill’s progress, empower individual legislators to bring bills to a vote if there is sufficient support, limit a legislator’s term as a committee chair, and mandate a “mark-up” process for all bills before they are voted out of committee.  Some of these rules already have been enacted by the Senate. If such rules changes are enacted by the Assembly, the public will be better for it.

With the 2016 legislative session underway, please know that the City Bar, led by the work of our Government Ethics and Election Law Committees, will hold true to that part of our mission that requires us to seek reform of the law for the public good. We believe our top legislative priority fits the bill.