What would bring real reform to the Legislature?

People do not like the state Legislature. They think of it as a self-serving, self-perpetuating institution that thinks of the reelection of its majority party members first and democracy second. The Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver is extremely popular because his first obligation is to protect the members of his house. That’s why, when the press and the headhunters go after Silver, his members back him up. Recently we saw Governor Andrew Cuomo ask for increased ethics reform in state government and lose. Put another way, do you really think that Dean Skelos in the Senate and Silver in the Assembly will give up their power willingly? You and I both know that isn’t going to happen.

Recently we saw the Vito Lopez or “Gropez” affair unfold in the Assembly. Lopez, one of the most powerful politicians in the state as head of the Brooklyn Democratic organization was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior and was subsequently fined and censured by JCOPE, the new state ethics panel that has done little else. The Silver detractors tried to break the women Democrats away from the speaker because he allocated public money to defend Lopez. Some even suggested that the next speaker should be a woman in a classic attempt at a divide and conquer putsch. Silver has treated his women members fairly and they were buying none of the new gambit to get rid of him. Perhaps the women members who have backed Silver in his role as speaker did so out of love and respect. Perhaps they did so because they knew they didn’t have the votes. Perhaps they couldn’t decide who was next. All we know is that they stood resolutely behind Silver who they seem to like. Silver has survived once again and is now the second longest serving speaker in New York state history.

When the governor won some limited reforms of the political system in New York, one of the planks in his program was to insist that the voters would be told how much money all the political actors were making. While this was not to the penny, the governor and his top advisors were pretty sure that when people saw the amounts that legislators were hauling in, they would be outraged and insist on major changes. I suspected at the time that the voters would yawn. I was right. When the first batch of numbers came out, it would appear that Shelly Silver was only making about $400,000 from his law firm that specializes in medical malpractice cases and a lot of people were shocked that his salary was so low. After all, there is a common wisdom in Albany that Silver will never allow tort reform that would lower medical malpractice rates and bring down the cost of medicine and health care in New York. That sure put a crimp in the governor’s conviction that outside salary disclosures would turn things around and result in reform of the Legislature.

We have to look no further than to several other states to understand what will lead to reform. There should be initiative and referendum. Let the people collect enough signatures to put ballot questions up for a vote and then let them vote on them. How long do you think it would take to get a question up there on term limits in the Legislature? How long do you think it would take to put a proposition before the people that legislators who are grossing around a hundred thousand dollars should not have outside jobs that might determine how they voted in the Legislature.

I’ll tell you when we’ll have initiative and referendum in New York, never, that’s when. And, oh by the way, in contrast to others, I really like Shelly Silver. I think he’s a decent man who has shown a remarkable ability to survive even when the wolves are out to get him. This isn’t personal.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 8/6/13

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