The State of New York, facing its deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, is also enduring an equally profound, if not greater, challenge: the loss of integrity within its electoral and legislative systems. The combination of these two dilemmas is devastating, and it appears neither will be resolved quickly. Even worse, there is little evidence that the willpower to face reality exists among the Empire State’s elected officials.
The Citizens Union Organization has recently released a troubling report entitled “Examining Turnover in The New York State Legislature: Ethical Misconduct– Increasingly the Cause for Legislators Leaving”. The report found that vacancies in the New York State Assembly and Senate are more likely to occur due to an elected official leaving because of ethical misconduct than either being redistricted out or by death. During the past 10 years, one out of every 15 legislative vacancies occurred due to ethical or criminal misconduct. This horrifying figure does not even include those currently under investigation.
That statistic is bad, but the news is even worse. The misdeeds of legislators are not being unearthed by the ethical watchdogs within the legislative system–such as they are– but by law enforcement, including both local and federal agencies.
The lack of integrity and dedication within New York State’s legislature has reduced that body to an ineffective shadow of a true governing body. The vise-like grip held by the leaders of the Senate and Assembly reduces well-meaning attempts at reform by individual legislators to ineffectiveness. The last true attempt at reform, led by Stephen Kaufman, was defeated, and Kaufman was severely punished for his courage and his ongoing dedication to honest government. Both Republican and Democrat governors have expressed utter frustration. The recent bid by two Senators to, essentially, sell themselves to the highest bidder in a contest for control of the Senate made this state a nationwide laughingstock.
The damage done by corrupt legislators endures even after they are removed from office. In addition to the tragic crisis in confidence they produce, the special elections to replace them are themselves problematical. They are frequently replaced in special elections, where the candidates are chosen by party leaders, and not by primary voters. The turnout for these special elections are abysmally low–only two or three percent of the electorate turns out.. Further, these boss-picked candidates, once in office, stay there–such is the power of incumbancy in this state.
All of this would be bad enough in normal time. In the current budgetary crisis, with New York facing an overwhelming $3.2 billion shortfall, it is unforgivable, and could severely damage it for years to come. According to NY State Budget Director Robert L. Megna, the state’s fiscal disaster hardships will continue for some time. On November 9, he noted that “It is clear that New York will continue to remain mired in one of the worst economic downturns in history for a prolonged period of time, depressing tax collections across all revenue lines.” That view was echoed recently in New York Magazine, which found that our state ranks 33rd in budgetary fitness.
The people of this state deserve better. It’s time our elected officials put their constituents interests above their own.