By Kieran Michael Lalor
February 1, 2015 | 7:24pm
Photo: Shannon DeCelle
With the departure of Sheldon Silver as Assembly speaker amid federal corruption charges, we have a duty to seize this opportunity to boldly and fundamentally reform state government.
First, we should cut the legislative session from six months to three and reduce legislator compensation accordingly. We can get the budget done and deal with any other major issues in that time.
Right now, less than 60 days of session are spread out over six months. And many of those session days aren’t days at all. They’re an hour or two of passing non-controversial bills unanimously or near-unanimously.
If each session lasted five or six hours, we wouldn’t even need three months.
With lawmakers in session for six months, they feel the need to justify their existence. So they draft bills to meddle in the lives of New York’s citizens and businesses.
Many of these seemingly innocuous but ill-conceived laws are unfunded mandates on local governments and businesses which add to the death-by-a-thousand-cuts dynamic that squeezes taxpayers and businesses.
The leisurely pace of the six-month session also gives lawmakers plenty of time to rub elbows with lobbyists, party bosses and the leaders of special interest groups.
The quicker we get our work done and get home to the people we represent, the better off the state will be.
WE HAVE A DUTY TO SEIZE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO BOLDLY AND FUNDAMENTALLY REFORM STATE GOVERNMENT.
Second, we need to limit the terms of state lawmakers.
One-third of legislative races in 2014 were uncontested. Elections are supposed to ensure officials are accountable, but this most basic check on power has been eliminated in much of New York thanks to gerrymandering and one-party rule.
There should also be term limits on top leadership positions and committee chairmanships to further dilute the concentration of power. Silver represents 130,000 people, just like each of the other 149 members of the Assembly. But over two decades as speaker, he amassed power that rivaled the governor, who represents 19 million New Yorkers. This is remarkably undemocratic.
Moreover, it takes some time to figure out how to profit from a leadership job. Silver didn’t start the alleged kickback schemes for which he was indicted until he was fully entrenched in the speaker’s chair for eight years.
Where there’s pork, there’s corruption. Legitimate local projects that warrant funding by state government should be transparently voted on by the Legislature, not paid for out of taxpayer funded slush funds controlled by individual lawmakers.
“Member items,” as pork was known euphemistically in Albany, don’t exist anymore — officially. To bring home the bacon, lawmakers use a myriad of innocent-sounding pots of money, including grants.
State grants to a mesothelioma clinic in exchange for referrals to Silver’s law firm were at the heart of the Silver indictment.
Similarly, disgraced former state Sen. Malcolm Smith is on trial for a bribery scheme where he allegedly would provide state transportation funding to a municipality in exchange for cash from a developer who’d get paid to build the road.
Economic-development funding, subsidies to corporations and special tax incentives are also used by legislative leaders to feather their nests.
Among the charges against Silver is that he arranged special real-estate-tax breaks in exchange for large sums funneled through a friend’s law firm.
New York spends five times more than any other state on this type of corporate welfare.
If we took all, most or even some of the billions in state-funded crony-capitalism programs and turned it into across-the-board tax relief, the economy would boom and legislators’ ability to transfer wealth to favored constituencies would diminish markedly.
Finally, lawmakers convicted of abusing their office shouldn’t be able to collect their state pensions. Fixing this requires amending the state Constitution, which now guarantees pensions.
While working through the multiyear amendment process, we should immediately pass a law that makes pension forfeiture a prerequisite for a prosecutor to offer a plea deal to a lawmaker charged with corruption.
Some will say these reforms are long shots. Fair enough — but two weeks ago it was unthinkable that Sheldon Silver’s reign as speaker was about to end.
Kieran Michael Lalor (R) represents Dutchess County in the Assembly.