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Assembly GOP urges ethics reform

June 07, 2017 07:02 PM

ALBANY - As a freshman lawmaker, Mary Beth Walsh (R - Ballston) found out fast what it means to serve in the minority party.

"As a new member of the assembly, if I don't even know how all the money is being spent, how could I possibly communicate that to my constituents?" Walsh asks, "The public has no trust in its public officials and so a big part of that is a lack of transparency."

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Walsh joined other GOP assembly members on Wednesday to call for passage of ethics reform, the same thing they did last year.

"Last year was the pre-indictment press conference," quipped Assemblyman Raymond Walter (R - Amherst), "and this is the post-indictment press conference."

"Since then, the governor's top aides have been arrested," Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R - Canandaigua) points out, "The governor has forfeited his right to have carte blanche when it comes to any of these economic development programs."

"We have to be here to advocate for change, otherwise we'll never see it," Walsh added.

The change they seek is geared toward transparency and accountability. The Assembly Minority has introduced legislation to ensure more checks and balances. Specifically, the bill would:

* Establish a three-member committee to review and approve allocations that originate from lump-sum appropriations; the committee would be comprised of the comptroller, attorney general and budget director.

* Implement reforms to the budgeting process so conflicts of interest are identified, appropriations are prohibited when such conflicts exist, and require all appropriations to be lined out with specific details provided.

* Conduct an independent, third-party study of the state's economic development programs and the impact of streamlining the tax system.

* Institute penalties related to late economic development or lump--sum appropriation related reports by state agencies.

* Prohibit certain political contributions by individuals appointed to entities charged with distribution of discretionary state funds.

* Prohibit using third-party not-for-profits for state bidding and purchasing purposes.

In addition, the Minority Conference has called for ethics reforms that change the culture of corruption in Albany and curtail the accumulation of power that led to the convictions of two legislative leaders. Those changes include:

* Implementing eight-year term limits for legislative leaders and committee chairs.

* Replacing the Joint Commission on Public Ethics with a new, independent five-member Commission on Official Conduct.

* Prohibiting the spending of campaign funds for criminal defense fees.

* Creating a new crime of failure to report corruption.

"You hope all of it could get done," says Blair Horner, of NYPIRG. "It's not like somebody is making it up or pretending there could be a scandal. There have been real scandals that involve the highest levels of the government, so it makes perfect sense to come up with a system that's more transparent or accountable."

Horner says even though there hasn't been the appetite yet to pass ethics reform, that may change, he believes, once the governor's former aides go on trial.

"Taxpayer dollars are not supposed to be rewarding partisan advantage in the legislative process," Horner asserts, "It's supposed to be used to solve problems or provide services and it's not fair when it's political."

"Unless we restore transparency or bring transparency to the process," Walsh suggests, "We're never going to change anything."

The state senate has already passed term limits legislation for legislative leaders and committee chairs. So far, however, the assembly has not acted.

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Dan Levy

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