Corruption—A (Not So) Radical Plan to Clean Up Albany

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

It’s not news: Our New York State government is the most corrupt government anywhere in the United States. You know that already. But why does it matter?

• The Legislature spends $145 billion of your money each year

• A large percentage of educational funding (including higher education funding) comes through Albany.

• An overwhelming portion of public funding for health care comes from the State.

• All taxes are set by the State.

• Environmental policy and law is decided and enforced by the State.

• The court system is funded by the State.

• The Legislature passes laws addressed to the criminal process, corporate corruption, and election law.

State government touches every level of our lives. And despite the indictment and conviction of the Assembly Speaker (Sheldon Silver) and the last four Senate Majority Leaders (Dean Skelos, Joe Bruno, Malcolm Smith, and John Sampson), both Democratic and Republican, all we hear are vague promises of “ethics reform.”

It isn’t going to happen without radical change. There is no imperative not to be corrupt when legislators get elected basically for life.

Here is my prescription for change:

1. Term limits. All State offices, from Governor on down, should have a term limit: an 8 year maximum (I would change the Assembly and Senate to four-year terms; they are now two-year terms.) We have this in NYC and survive quite well.

2. Elections should be publicly funded. Just like in NYC. A 6-to-1 match for contributions $100 or less. NO corporate or LLC contributions.

3. Candidates must have a fund-raising cap if they opt to receive public financing. No build-up of millions of dollars which can then be used for personal expenses. (Shelly Silver paid his $2.5 million legal bill out of his campaign account!)

4. Campaign money left over goes to charity. Once a candidate stops running for State office, his or her campaign account balance goes to a charity on a list approved by the Attorney General.

5. Strict policing of independent campaigns. This is a loophole opened by the Citizens United case. These “Super Pacs” can spend money, but they must have no contact with a candidate or his or her staff. And no one involved in a Super Pac should be permitted to work for the government for 4 years or work for an entity which receives state funding.

6. End all “lulus.” These are bonuses given for chairing a committee. They are rewards for falling into line with the leadership. Legislators shouldn’t get rewards for their votes.

7. Crooks lose their pensions. There can be no hidden benefits for corrupt politicians.

8. Total transparency of public officials’ outside earnings. Elected officials should be allowed to make more than the $75,000 per year that the Legislature pays, but they have to be accountable for every penny.

And while we are at it, we have to make it easier to vote non-performing politicians out.

• We need early voting, like in 20 other states, where people can vote for weeks ahead of election day.

• State and local elections should be held on Sunday, like in many European countries.

• We must allow same-day registration and allow voters to vote in any party’s primary, like in New Hampshire. Our rule now, requiring a switch of party 13 months before an election, is ridiculous.

• The Boards of Elections must be better funded. Voting shouldn’t be a chore which takes hours due to long lines.

A few small steps to eliminate some of the impetus for corruption. (And if I get elected to the Assembly, these would be at the core of my plan—and I will be very loud about it!)

Arthur Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village and is running for the Assembly in a district which includes Greenwich Village, Soho, and Tribeca.

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