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Dealing for ethics reform

First came the unofficial announcement of an agreement on state ethics reform legislation, with the actual bill to come later. Then came the official announcement, but still no bill.
 
Finally, Gov. Andrew Cuomo released the legislation on Tuesday–all 113 pages of it. Is this the sweeping reform measure so long overdue, or a flawed measure that could be improved significantly? Both, it would seem.
 
No question, the bill contains important changes. Lawmakers no longer would be in charge of policing themselves; a 14-member Joint Committee on Public Integrity would end the fragmented, internal oversight now in place. Legislators would have to disclose how much they earn from outside business interests, and elected representatives who are lawyers would have to identify clients doing business with the state.
 
The measure also requires greater and more precise disclosure of lawmakers’ outside income. What’s more, punishment for violations would be stiffened; for example, lawmakers convicted of felonies could lose their state pensions.
 
Yet for all its good points, the legislation bears the telltale marks of compromise molded by self-interest. That risk of forfeited pensions? It applies only to lawmakers yet to be elected. And the rules for the new joint committee would enable appointees to effectively block investigations of their fellow party members.
 
Also troubling–and a possible target of a legal challenge down the road–is the provision that limits membership on the joint committee to Democrats and Republicans. Do independents and those affiliated with minor parties really have no place at the government ethics table?
 
These are not trivial flaws. Still, if the choice this year becomes this ethics legislation or none at all, the merits of passage outweigh the drawbacks.
 
As we noted here last month, greater transparency is sorely needed for both lawmakers and lobbyists-who outnumber members of the Assembly and Senate by more than 31-to-1. And the number of lawmakers under indictment for or convicted of crimes committed while in office underscores the need for stiffer penalties.

Passage of this bill would help restore public trust in state government. Fixing some of its flaws in the near future would do even more good.

6/10/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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