by SEYMOUR LACHMAN
How and why is the New York State Legislature as corrupt as it is? Some call it the most dysfunctional in the nation. There is a complete lack of transparency: no one except for the speaker of the Assembly, the majority leader of the state Senate, and their senior staffs know what is going on.
The two leaders decide which bills are permitted to go through the Legislature. They negotiate legislation and the budget with one another and with the governor. During my five terms in the state Senate, I do not recall any bill that passed both houses of the Legislature without the support of the speaker of the Assembly and the majority leader of the Senate, who most of the time happened to be of opposite parties.
The legislative leaders also are in charge of all moneys going to members beyond their base salaries of $79,500 (for what is supposed to be a part-time job). They appoint committee chairs, controlling the additional salary that comes with those positions. They allocate office space and staff budgets and determine what funds in the budget members may distribute to community groups in their districts. They give them these perks and benefits and, in return, members of the Legislature are required to vote as they are told and not make waves. Because members are so dependent upon the leaders in providing for their districts as well as personal advancement, the relationship is inherently corrupt.
Even though the U.S. Congress has been criticized for corruption, it does not compare to the New York State Legislature, in part because power is not as concentrated. Speakers of the House and majority leaders of the Senate must be responsive to members of their own party conference and often do not get their way on leadership appointments and legislative actions. Consider the trouble that Senator Ted Cruz raised for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when he publicly called him both in and out of the Senate “a liar.” That would never happen in the New York State Legislature.
When I served on the State Senate Finance Committee, the majority leader’s senior staff had much more power than I had. I recall one time when we had to vote on the state budget, already several months late. Committee members were given half an hour to consider the stack of budget and appropriation bills the size of 15 telephone directories. We could not possibly read the hundreds of pages. Nonetheless, we were all expected to vote in favor of them. We were told that, as members of the Finance Committee, we were lucky to have any time to look over the bills. The rest of our colleagues would have to debate and vote on them as soon as they were placed on their desks. The justification for this lack of review? The budget had been negotiated by and had the joint support of the Senate majority leader, a Republican, and the Assembly speaker, a Democrat, and then-Governor George Pataki, another Republican. Whenever they agree on something, it had to be voted on favorably and we had to vote yes.
And, it remains that way today.
I think that most people who run for the Legislature want to do the right thing but are prevented from doing so because it is a dysfunctional environment. Many who are not corrupt are still drawn into the web and become part of the system and advance politically and legislatively. It is so dysfunctional that, for the last decade, five leaders of the state Senate as well as the 20-year veteran speaker of the Assembly have all been indicted, including some who are now in prison or will be sentenced shortly.
In May, Dean Skelos of Nassau County was forced to give up his position as majority leader of the State Senate after he was indicted for alleged influence peddling. His deputy leader, Senator Thomas Libous of Binghamton, could not succeed him because he too was under indictment for corruption. Libous was convicted in July and lost his Senate seat, as has Senator John Sampson of Brooklyn, the previous Democratic conference leader, who was convicted of obstruction of justice and making false statements to the FBI stemming from the alleged embezzlement of $400,000 from the sale of foreclosed homes.
These and other indicted or convicted senators together represent close to 17 percent of the Senate in the past 15 years. What other institution has had this many of its officials indicted over such a period?
In the Assembly, at least 18 members have been convicted of corruption or otherwise left office in scandals related to their public offices in the past 15 years. Sheldon Silver, who served as speaker from 1994 until forced to relinquish his position in January, has been indicted for allegedly monetizing his power and position by illegally earning attorney fees in return for conveying public benefits to a medical clinic and a real estate business.
Recent prosecutions of public corruption by federal prosecutors, especially the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, have brought to the surface corruption in the Legislature. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to bring about some reform have been frustrated by opposition of the Legislature’s leadership.
Some suggestions that can lead towards reforming the legislative system should include:
Prohibit outside employment for all state legislators, and make the job full-time. Members should be working in the best interest of their constituents and the people of the State of New York, not outside interests.
Extend the legislative term from two to four years, with term limits of three four-year terms. The constant pressure to campaign every two years and raise money for re-election undermines members’ ability to act in the best interests of the people. Unlimited terms lead to entrenched leadership with excessive power and increases the possibility of corruption at the top as exemplified by the recent spate of arrests of legislative leaders.
Replace unaccountable per diem payments that have been abused by legislators with limited reimbursements for food and lodging while on official business in Albany. Require receipts and proof that the member was at the capital.
Designated grants, such as member items, should be allocated fairly to deserving organization that serve the community, that have been vetted, and to which the member does not have a personal or financial interest. Where appropriate, organizations should be funded in the baseline budget and granted funds objectively by state agencies through an application process based on the merits rather than at the discretion members or the three men in the room. The ability to designate expenditures should be allocated fairly to all members of the Legislature, not as a way to reward some members, especially in the majority party, and punish others.
Reform New York’s campaign finance system by reducing the influence of money on candidates:
Establish public campaign financing with matching funds for small individual contributions for legislative elections.
Lower individual contribution limits, which are higher than any state that limits campaign contributions, to reduce further the influence of money on candidates.
Further restrict campaign contributions from those with business before the state.
Explicitly prohibit the use of campaign funds for personal purposes and define all “personal purposes” so that there is no ambiguity or misunderstanding.
Limit the power of the leaders of the Assembly and Senate. Individual members should select committee chairs. Committees should be empowered to hold hearings on pending legislation, allow bill markups and amendments, and decide which bills are sent to the floor of each house for a vote, without control or retribution by the leaders.
All members of each house, regardless of party or seniority, should be given comparable staff allocations and Albany office space as well as funding for district offices sufficient to serve all constituents regardless of geographic size or local rent costs.
The problem is that these laws and rule changes have to be adopted by the Legislature, but the leaders and the members benefit from the current system, so it would be difficult for them to go along with these democratic reforms that would make the Legislature more functional.
We all must increase the pressure on them to change their behavior within the light of total transparency. As Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis said in 1913, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
The dimensions of a dysfunctional Legislature have grown over the last generation to the present when things are so bad that more and more people are demanding change. At the same time, many of them do not know how to bring about these important and necessary changes so that New York State in all aspects government will become a beacon of light and not darkness unto the nation. In order to achieve this, we must organize together as one group to really bring about a functional state Legislature that we can look at with pride and satisfaction. It will not be an easy accomplishment, but, working together, it can be done.
Seymour Lachman is dean emeritus of the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform and distinguished university professor emeritus at Wagner College. He served five terms in the New York State Senate representing parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn.