We try not to be too cynical about Albany. Really, we do. Voters are cynical enough, what with dozens of legislators being led off in handcuffs and Election Day turnout hitting new lows.
Meanwhile, lawmakers contemplate voting themselves a pay raise while fending off more reports of shenanigans. Go ahead, hand the cynics a baseball bat.
Just look at Monday’s New York Times. The lead story chronicles the excesses of legislators who treat the office as a personal piggy bank, with little to stop them.
According to The Times, state Sen. Gregory Ball, the Republican representing suburban New York City, used campaign cash to finance trips to Acapulco, pick up restaurant and bar tabs in Texas and even to enter a “Tough Mudder” obstacle course race. Ball contends this is perfectly legitimate — and given New York’s lax and porous laws, he just might be right. Ball isn’t sticking around to find out; he’s quitting the Legislature and moving to Texas.
Sen. George Maziarz, the Republican senator representing Niagara Falls, failed to disclose $147,000 in contributions and $325,000 in spending, investigators found. Maziarz spent campaign cash at Pier 1, Michael’s, Shutterfly and Borders. His campaign wrote $137,000 in checks to “cash.” The feds are investigating Maziarz, who didn’t run for re-election.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s outside income from law firms also is under scrutiny, The Times reported. Silver, Democrat of Manhattan, earned $650,000 from outside legal work last year. His law firm has been subpoenaed by federal prosecutors, the newspaper reported. Investigators also are looking into income from another law firm that Silver may not have disclosed.
And then there’s the “LLC loophole” that makes a mockery of campaign contribution limits and helped Gov. Andrew Cuomo raise $47 million for his successful re-election campaign.
None of this is all that new or surprising. It was the reason the governor empaneled the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption last year. The commission’s work ended abruptly in March when legislators agreed to some mild reforms — most of which remain undone, according to The Times.
Editorial boards and good government groups kicked up a fuss over Moreland’s demise. The electorate yawned — just as Albany knew it would. Unless you wake up — and fast — legislators soon may vote themselves a pay raise.
Cuomo and legislative leaders could call a special session in the coming days to do just that. Many lawmakers complain that their base pay of $79,500 (for a part-time job, mind you) hasn’t gone up since 1999.
A recent study by the conservative-leaning Empire Center, all 63 senators were eligible to collect a leadership or committee stipend (called a lulu) on top of base pay. Most earned more than $90,000; 17 senators earned more than $100,000. Meanwhile, half of Assembly members were paid more than $90,000, including 11 who were paid more than $100,000. And that’s not counting generous health care and pension benefits for the longest-serving members.
Legislators are well compensated for their public service. They don’t need a pay raise.
If a special session is called, reform of Albany’s lax ethics and campaign finance laws should be the first order of business.