Reform An Elusive Goal
The issue of ethics reform in Albany has bounced around for several years. Everyone is supposed to favor it, but somehow it never happens.
The controversy caught fire in 2006 when the Brennan Center for Justice, affiliated with New York University School of Law, was said to have concluded that New York State had the most dysfunctional legislature in the country. It has been disputed whether that phrase actually appears in the report. That to us is akin to the historical question: Did Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, actually say "Let them eat cake" when she was told that the peasants in France had no bread?
In fact, there is no evidence that she used those words, and the phrase must be considered an urban legend. But it resonated as a statement of royal disdain for the plight of poor people, and it may have contributed to the climate which led to the guillotining of Marie Antoinette and her husband, King Louis XVI.
Although it cannot be stated with certainty that New York State's legislature is the worst of the fifty, and there may be several rivals for that title who are even more deficient in particular areas, it is generally known that New York is close to the bottom, which is a pathetic location for the Empire State, whose motto is excelsior.
Our governance is unsatisfactory in areas which go beyond the personal corruption of public officials. There is an institutional standoff in the bicameral legislature. The gerrymandered houses are dominated by their leaders, who make decisions on issues which are important to them. Individual legislators are forced to toe the party line, under threat of budgetary reprisals and political isolation.
"Reform" proposals are made periodically and good government groups often rate legislators on their responses to these initiatives. Some measures will sometimes pass one house or another, but the track record on laws approved by both houses and signed by the governor is meager. The politicians have found a way to appear to support reform without risking any privileges and prerogatives that they might lose if reforms were to be enacted. Legislators, who generally behave like other people, not much better and not worse, cannot be relied upon to voluntarily limit their own authority. Rattling the bars of their cages in Albany is unlikely to induce any leopards to change their spots, or any lions to lie down with lambs.
In a political universe, the way to achieve change is to elect people who are committed to it, and to watch them like hawks to see that they do not retrogress or submit to the rule of the power brokers who have run the store for decades.
An attempt at such oversight occurred in 2011 as a result of Governor Cuomo's stated desire to turn around state government. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics was established through the Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011. The commission has the authority to oversee and investigate the legislative and executive branches along with lobbying entities in matters of ethics and disclosure. Many consider the rules governing its decision making process to be overly inhibitive, due to the nearly unanimous voting requirements for launching an investigation. After its first meeting regarding a matter of investigation, The Governor mentioned the possibility of creating another panel in order to make sure that the scope of the probe was appropriately broad.
It will take coalitions of like-minded individuals and organizations to change Albany's ways. It will take years, and there will be disappointments and defeats along the way. Individuals you have helped elect may turn out to be unstable, ineffective or malleable.
Nonetheless, the struggle must continue. If we give up, the public sector may deteriorate further due to a lack of citizen participation and oversight. We live in a competitive world, with other nations, states and provinces vying for our assets and resources.
We are not accusing people of evil designs, although that locution applies to a few. The problem is that the current course of self-serving conduct is accepting a situation that is unsustainable. The sooner New York recognizes this, the easier it will be to change course.
Governor Cuomo is the key player here. What he does in the next two years will impact both the future of the state and his own prospects for advancement. His election and his first twenty months have given us hope, but the disappointments we suffered under his predecessors make our reading of the future guarded. How long will the governor stick to his professed ideals? And what will happen if he feels compelled to yield on one point or on many? And what will be the effect of next year's mayoral election on the city-state dynamic? Sadly, time is not our friend.