By Sabina Mollot
Amidst growing interest from the media about state lawmakers’ outside incomes and last week’s quick replacement of the longtime leader of the Assembly, Senate Democrats have introduced a package of legislative reforms aimed at cleaning up the Capitol.
Mainly, the new bills, which were introduced on Monday afternoon at an Albany press conference, are aimed at capping politicians’ outside incomes, making it illegal for officials to use campaign cash for any criminal defense fees they incur and stripping corrupt officials of their pensions.
So far, the Democrats have said the Republican majority has blocked its efforts for ethics reform.
However, with the spotlight being firmly planted on state legislators’ outside activities and U.S. Attorney Preet Bhahara’s warning the public to “stay tuned,” some Democrats, like Brad Hoylman, are hopeful this might change.
“This is a great Watergate moment for the state legislature,” said Hoylman, “and by that I mean that public confidence is at an all-time low. And it is up to both parties to usher in some reform, much like the Congress did in 1974. We should look at that example.”
On Monday, Hoylman introduced a bill that would mirror the Congressional policy of limiting lawmakers’ outside income to 15 percent of their gross legislative salaries. The bill would also establish a commission to evaluate officials’ salaries and benefits every four years and make recommendations.
Currently, one out of four state lawmakers claims outside income.
Another Hoylman bill would forbid a legislator from using campaign funds for legal defense expenses related to any alleged violation of law.
A third bill is aimed at deterring kick-back schemes like the one Sheldon Silver has been accused of running. The bill would make it a Class-C and Class-D felony for politicians who use their influence to steer contracts in a way that will benefit themselves or their friends or families or anyone they have business relationships with.
“We shouldn’t be moonlighting on the side with private clients,” said Hoylman.
It would be considered “self-dealing” in the first degree if a public contract has a value of ten thousand dollars or more.
When asked what the atmosphere has been like in Albany lately, Hoylman said it was hard to tell, saying, “In some ways, Albany’s a bubble.” He also guessed that if any of his colleagues were in fact engaging in self-dealing practices, “they wouldn’t share it with me.”
So far, the Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos hasn’t publicly responded to the Democrat conference’s legislation package.
Nor has Governor Cuomo, but Hoylman referred to how the governor had previously made “a broad statement” about the need for reform.
A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request from Town & Village for a comment on the legislative push.
And another senator who sponsored two of the bills, Liz Krueger, said she has no idea what the governor will think of them, although the Democrats will need his influence to go anywhere.
“The governor’s given speeches about the need to fix Albany, but he’s been short on details,” said Krueger. “Which is why we’ve come out with the details.”
While Cuomo has already announced the budget, Krueger pointed out that he could, after 21 days or 30 days, make amendments to it by including the reforms as one omnibus bill.
Both she and Hoylman agreed that in order to influence individual legislators including the governor, they’ll need to hear from constituents.
“The public has to wake up and say, ‘Sorry, senators, people are tired of watching legislators do the perp walk and then pretending to fix things,” said Krueger.
She also blasted previous passage of legislation aimed at reform as being a fakeout, much like “Lucy getting to fake out Charlie Brown by pulling the football.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, we did ethics reform. There’s JCOPE, but you can drive train holes in that,” she said.
Krueger’s legislation would cap donations to soft money accounts at $25,000. Currently, donors are able to provide unlimited contributions to soft money accounts.
Another bill she sponsored would strengthen regulations on how campaign money can be spent. Currently, the cash can be used for “any lawful purpose.”
However, Krueger noted that these funds have been abused in the past to pay for things like box seats, home improvements and luxury cars.
Other proposed changes rolled out by the Democrats include:
• No longer allowing LLCs to donate as much as $150,000 in one year. Instead, the legislation would limit LLCs and corporations to donating $1,000 a year.
• Retroactively strip corrupt lawmakers of their pensions. Current law only only affects politicians who joined the pension system after 2011.
• Create more mandatory financial disclosure by requiring officials to reveal the source and nature of all income and report all clients of, or referrals to, a firm or practice the elected officials works at.
• Lower contribution limits.
• Require disclosure about who “bundles” donations.
• Establish a public finance system that would: match eligible contributions up to $250 at the rate of $6 for every $1, make sure that participating candidates could only receive donations of $2,000 (excluding candidates who are running unopposed) and see that all unspent public funds be returned 30 days after the election.