By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders
The King is dead. Long live the King!
By now you have heard, ad nauseum, about the indictments and resignation of Sheldon Silver as speaker of the New York State Assembly. Assemblyman Carl Heastie from the Bronx has been elected as speaker.
The stunning downfall of Mr. Silver is very sad on many levels. On a personal note he has been a friend and an ally. I believe that as the leader of the Assembly for 21 years he accomplished much. Notwithstanding the charges of personal corruption alleged against him which a court must ultimately decide, I believe that from a public policy standpoint, Silver leaves his post and the state better off than he found it. But if his arrest and fall from grace is the ultimate result and legacy of this year’s legislative session in Albany that will be sadder still. Reform is needed and badly. And if not now, when?
The public needs to have confidence in its elected officials and its government institutions. Plainly said, today they do not.
The road to reform does not begin and end with the State Assembly; it must go through the State Senate as well as the governor’s office. Reform does not mean replacing one leader for another; it means systemic and enduring changes that will hold public officials to a higher standard of conduct. And it will mean that current office holders, including the governor, will have to sacrifice some of their current and cherished prerogatives.
Here are ten ideas. I am sure there are others:
- Outside personal income must be limited to less than the public salary paid to legislators. And its sources and amounts must be clearly documented.
- Periodic pay increases should be decided by a commission independently appointed, and not decided by legislators themselves.
- Legislative district boundaries that are drawn every ten years should similarly be done by an independent commission, and not by the legislators themselves.
- Maximum campaign contributions for statewide offices should be cut in half with even further limitations on corporate contributions. It is obscene to amass a $45M war chest such as Governor Cuomo did last year largely through mega contributions from wealthy people and corporations who do business with the government.
- Campaign contributions should not be spent on anything other than items directly related to that political campaign. It should certainly not be spent on personal items or legal expenses having nothing to do with the political campaign.
- Albany fundraisers should be prohibited while the state legislature is in session. How unseemly is it to vote on a bill during the day and raise money from people doing business with the legislature in the evening?
- As with the president of the United States, there should be a two term limitation (eight years) on the governor and other statewide elected officials.
- The powerful leaders of the Assembly and Senate, namely the speaker and the Senate majority leader should also be be limited to eight years in that leadership position.
- Any elected public official who is convicted of a felony should forfeit their pension. Holding office is a public trust which if violated should result in extraordinary punishment.
Assembly and Senate staff allocations and office expenses should be made standard so that favored politicians are not given favored status and “perks.”
To be sure, when I was a member of the New York State Assembly, I supported some of these reforms, but not all of them. What has changed my mind is witnessing the seemingly endless parade of state officials who have been convicted of serious crimes, removed from office, and even jailed. Most of their offenses dealt with abusing their positions to enrich themselves or using their political power inappropriately. The opportunity for both must be curtailed.
The Sheldon Silver controversy is not over with the political demise of one person, but rather it must be the impetus to do important reforms that were needed for years before Silver became speaker.
The road to reform in the legislature will only reach its destination with the acknowledgment by both houses of the legislature and the governor that they must all change their ways of doing political and governmental business first and foremost for the good of the people and for the restoration of a respected democracy.
Steven Sanders served in the State Assembly from 1978-2006. He currently is the executive director of an association of agencies that provide early childhood services to learning challenged or developmentally disabled youngsters.