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Rebuilding trust

The first annual public ethics report to be filed in New York since the enactment of the Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011 does not make clear what impact the law is having in Albany. But it certainly underscores why an even sharper focus on transparency and independent oversight was warranted.
 
The recently published report of the new Joint Commission on Public Ethics states that total lobbying expenditures for 2011 once again set a record-hitting $220 million, roughly $7 million higher than in 2010. Annual spending on lobbying efforts has jumped more than $150 million in the past decade. Indeed, the amount has increased every year but three since 1991, when expenditures totaled $31 million.
 
The ranks of registered lobbyists and clients declined slightly in 2011, but the numbers remain fairly eye-popping-6,099 lobbyists representing 3,535 clients. In other words, Albany lobbyists outnumbered lawmakers by 29-1 last year.
 
The lineup of industries hiring lobbyists was little changed. Health and mental hygiene organizations again topped the list, with compensation and reimbursed expenses at $31.1 million. The real estate and construction industry ranked second at $18.6 million, followed by banking, financial services and insurance interests at $17.7 million and education groups at $13.8 million.
 
As noted here before, lobbying is not inherently suspect. But the industry’s growth in Albany is cause for concern: Does anyone think $220 million doesn’t buy a lot of influence over laws and regulations?
 
The new law Gov. Andrew Cuomo called "a major step forward in restoring the people’s trust in government" contains some important reforms. They include a requirement for expanded financial disclosure by lawmakers, stiffer punishment for violations and broader lobbying disclosure requirements.
 
In February, the public ethics commission appointed Ellen Biben as its first executive director. A former special deputy attorney general for public integrity, she arrived on the job saying "trust comes through knowledge and transparency. We start here and now on the process of earning from all New Yorkers their trust."

Her leadership, combined with the new law’s stricter provisions, should help keep public integrity front and center.

5/18/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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