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The wrong remedy

Is a full-time state Legislature an idea whose time has come?

“I think that’s an appropriate thing to look at,” a governor named Cuomo said—in 1987. Mario Cuomo’s comment came after the New York Times published a series of articles examining potential conflicts of interest for lawmakers who also had outside business interests.

His son, current Gov. Andrew Cuomo, took up the topic in a speech on ethics reform delivered last month in the wake of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s arrest for allegedly obtaining nearly $4 million in bribes and kickbacks. “The cleanest solution … would be to say we have a full-time Legislature; to pay them a decent salary and ban outside income,” he said.

Yet Mr. Cuomo, mindful of the fact no state in the nation has done that, instead opted to propose broad disclosure of lawmakers’ outside income.

Some are pushing for more. Common Cause New York “strongly supports a full-time legislature with higher base pay, and a ban on outside income.” Others like the congressional model: a 15 percent cap on outside income.

Nationwide, one-fifth of the 50 states have full-time legislatures or, like New York, something close to it. But at least one—Michigan—now has a grass-roots effort seeking to restore its part-time legislative body.

Since a total ban on outside income is untested, it’s impossible to say whether that would be an effective weapon against corruption. The lack of a pay raise since 1999 has not prevented Albany lawmakers from finding other ways to increase their compensation.

But money aside, do we really want full-time lawmakers—individuals who do nothing other than make laws and issue mandates? New York already has among the heaviest tax and regulatory burdens nationwide; imagine what a full-time Legislature might do.

There’s no need to take that leap. Instead, enact full disclosure rules for outside income—and place a cap on it, too.

Then voters will have only themselves to blame if they do not hold lawmakers accountable.

3/6/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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