Thiele: Ethics Must Be First Order of Business in Albany

New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.
New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.

There are many critical issues facing state government in 2016 including jobs and the economy, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, education funding, the environment, health care, and many more. However, the first order of business must be an effort to begin to restore public trust in government in Albany.

There has been a steady drumbeat of criminal convictions of State Assembly members and State Senators in recent years for violating the public trust, culminating with the convictions of both the State Senate Majority Leader and the Assembly Speaker this past year.

Many State Legislators have joined me in calling for changes in Albany that would make the entire process more transparent and would reduce the corrupting influence that money has on our political process. We are embarrassed by the misdeeds of our colleagues. More legislators have left Albany through the criminal justice system than the ballot box. However, time and again, reform efforts have been thwarted by those who benefit from the status quo.

As the only Independent member in either house of the State Legislature, I have been in a unique position, unburdened by partisanship, to weigh the types of reforms that are necessary to restore integrity and effectiveness to the legislative process. First, Governor Cuomo is on the right track with three of the proposals that he put forth last week in his State of the State address. Specifically, the Governor called for a limit on the outside income of State Legislators similar to the U. S. Congress where outside income is limited to 15% of the base salary. In addition, the Governor also called for a voluntary, publicly-funded state election system, as well as pension forfeiture for elected officials convicted of a crime related to their public duties.

I support all of these initiatives. I sponsor and the Assembly has approved legislation for the public financing of campaigns for State Office. No system is perfect, but public financing is a better option to the current system which is awash in cash and is dominated by wealthy special interests. Important policy issues never see the light of day because big contributors oppose them and legislative leaders too often do their bidding. For example, my gasoline zone pricing bill has never seen the light of day in the State Senate because of the money and influence of the Big Oil companies.

I am equally supportive of limits on outside income. There is a legitimate debate between those who want a part-time citizen Legislature and those who want to be sure that public policy decisions are not perverted by the outside employment of legislators.

I believe the Silver and Skelos convictions have answered the question for everyone. Many of the recent scandals have had at their root outside income. While this might be a burden to those of us who legally and ethically pursue careers and businesses outside the State Legislature and seek to be citizen legislators, the integrity of State government must be paramount. Transparent reporting of outside income has not been enough. There must also be income limits.

Public service is an honor and a privilege. Helping your community comes with its own non-pecuniary rewards, as well as many sacrifices. However, this is about trust in government institutions, not individual needs. I am convinced that quality candidates will still be attracted to public service even with the income limitations.

Finally, the obvious no brainer is pension forfeiture. There is no argument to support the fact that an elected official convicted of a crime related to his or her public office should then still be able to collect a public pension. Pension forfeiture should be enacted quickly by State Constitutional Amendment so that the public can approve this common sense measure.

In addition, I would offer two additional reforms not proposed by the Governor. First, New York must amend its State Constitution to provide for a workable procedure for Initiative and Referendum. I&R is the process of direct democracy whereby citizens can be a check on the Governor and State Legislature through the ability to petition and vote directly to enact laws and constitutional amendments in the State. There is no better check on government abuses or inaction than to permit citizens themselves to take action. Many states and even Suffolk County has and I&R procedure. New York would benefit by direct citizen participation.

Finally, California has had a very successful experiment with non-partisan primaries for U.S. Congress and State offices. I have introduced the same legislation in New York. Non-partisan primaries involve ALL voters in the selection of candidates. Too often, the extremes on the political spectrum have dominated the partisan party primary process, leaving voters with extreme choices in November. The result has been an increasing partisan process that as gridlocked our government. It has left moderate voters with no real choice at all as polarizing candidates are increasingly selected in low turn-out ideological primaries.

But permitting everyone to vote in a non-partisan primary where the two top vote-getters would face off on November would require candidates to appeal across the spectrum, and not just to the political extremes. The result would be an electoral system where more people are involved and candidates reflect a broader base of our communities.

Our political process is clearly broken. These five reforms would be a good first step in restoring the confidence of the public.

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