A few days ago the legislature passed a significant package of reforms called the Public Employee Ethics Reform Act of 2007. This act establishes comprehensive reforms that will strengthen New York's ethics and lobbying laws by closing loopholes and tightening loose regulations. These reforms are meant to increase accountability of state legislators, the governor, as well as the many employees that work for the Legislature and executive branch.
As part of this reform, a 13-member State Commission on Public Integrity will be created to replace the State Ethics Commission and the Temporary State Commission on Lobbying. This commission will be responsible for overseeing the Legislature and the executive by ensuring current and new regulations are enforced. Among the many reform measures included is prohibiting the giving of all gifts of more than “nominal value” from non-lobbyists to public officials where such gifts might appear designed to influence the official. This includes travel, lodging and other expenses, and broadens the types of lobbying activities that lobbyists must disclose.
Another reform includes closing the “revolving door” loophole by prohibiting former legislative employees from directly lobbying the Legislature for two years, and expands the revolving door restrictions for Executive Chamber employees to preclude appearances before any state agency. The reforms also include provisions that will prohibit elected government officials and candidates for elected local, state or federal office from appearing in taxpayer-funded advertisements.
In the wake of the recent scandal involving former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, my Conference and I proposed an amendment that would have stripped the pension benefits of any public official convicted of a felony, such as defrauding taxpayers. We believe no state official who violated the public’s trust should be allowed to collect benefits from the taxpayers. The amendment was defeated by the Assembly majority; however, our Assembly minority conference is still committed to making state public employees and elected officials accountable for their actions.
Overall, the package of reforms is a good start, but we can make it better. We are forming a brand new commission, which appears to be a good idea, but I am concerned that there was no public input on this very important piece of legislation. During our legislative debate I put forth an amendment to create a public hearing process before the inception of the new commission to ensure the citizens of New York would have an opportunity to voice their opinions. While it was defeated by the Assembly majority, we must continue to solicit the input of the general public and good government groups.
Although this legislation is a good beginning, the fact that this was created behind closed doors by the Governor and Legislative Leaders of both houses undermines the public confidence in state government. Herein is the real problem: we have to ensure that both the majority and minority members of the state Legislature are part of the deliberations on all legislation put forth in Albany. We are imploring Governor Spitzer to ensure that the status quo is truly changed in Albany by including all voices in state government.