The people will have the last say on ‘outside income’ fight

Our federal and state governments operate under the well-known model of separation of powers, meaning a governor, a legislature and a judiciary can all keep an eye on one another. That’s what’s good about separation of powers. What is bad is that by keeping them separate and not always having checks and balances, any individual branch can, as my mother used to put it, “Take advantage.”

Despite the fact that I like many of the people in the Legislature, there is no question that things in New York have reached crisis point. When I ask my students what their parents think about state legislators, inevitably, many of them respond, “They’re all a bunch of crooks.” I’ve been teaching politics for many years and I have always argued with these kids that it simply isn’t true. I do admit, however, that the older I get, the more cynical I get. Legislators really don’t have to work that hard, even though they argue that they do and, admittedly, I know some very committed and wonderful legislators who work their tails off. Many members of the Legislature wouldn’t think of doing anything unethical or illegal. With that said, however, I know some legislators who have made a fortune bringing in business to their law firms or getting huge campaign contributions from connected people who are virtually trading their support for new legislation or implied promises of blocking legislation that might really have helped all of us.

Now Andrew Cuomo wants to know about the outside income of all these legislators. He wants to know how much dough they are making and who’s writing the checks. Needless to say, the Legislature isn’t happy about this. Some of them may remember when, as a top aide to his pop, Andrew Cuomo himself set up a law firm and watched the money roll in. Some may point out that he has a lot of money (about $29 million) in his current campaign account and it’s not unlikely that some of that money came from people with particular agendas. But as Alfonse D’Amato once so eloquently put it, “That was then and this is now.” In fact, it may well be that Andrew’s own former participation in the game makes him the ideal guy to finally advance true change. If we actually institute campaign financing, it may mean that the marketplace between legislators and legal bribers may be slowed down until they figure out yet another way to milk the system.

The legislators will hire lawyers to argue that the separation of powers has been violated. They won’t win because, at least in this state, our top courts seem to interpret the law based on common sense. If we are to have anything resembling a democracy, it will have to pass the smell test, and the people will have to truly believe that the ones they elect are not, well, ripping us off.

There’s the potential for things to get very, very dirty. Cuomo is intent on upsetting the apple cart and the Legislature knows it and doesn’t like it. Think about it — if you had a standard of living based on a conflict of interest, would you go quietly into the night and end up having to scramble to pay the bills? So, like Pharaoh telling the Israelites that they could leave Egypt, but not really letting it happen because he didn’t want to lose his slave work force, the Legislature will make itty bitty moves in the right direction only to fight rear guard actions. In this case, though, it will be the people instead of the Red Sea who will awaken and have the last say. At this point, the question is not if we will see the restoration of true representative government, but when we will see it.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 9/16/13

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