Another day, another indictment for Albany corruption, or so it seems nowadays.
On Monday, Sen. Dean Skelos, the majority leader of the New York State Senate, was arrested, along with his son, Adam Skelos, on charges of extortion, fraud and bribe solicitation. The allegations center on a small Arizona environmental company, AbTech; the complaint said that Sen. Skelos took official actions to benefit AbTech as long as the company paid his son. Both father and son have said they are innocent of the allegations.
Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, is overseeing the case. This is the latest step in a very public campaign Bharara has leveled against corruption in Albany. He is also overseeing the case against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was arrested earlier this year. (Silver remains a member of the Assembly, but resigned the speakership in early February.)
In announcing the charges against Skelos and his son, Bharara alleged, “Dean Skelos’ support for certain infrastructure projects and legislation was often based not on what was good for his constituents or good for New York, but rather on what was good for his son’s bank account.” The senator has said that he will remain in his leadership position as he fights the charge, but calls are mounting for him to give up his post.
As I noted on the occasion of Silver’s arrest, and without jumping to any conclusions about whether Silver or either Skelos will or should be found guilty at trial, it is fair to say that prosecutors keep lining up and mowing down New York’s politicians. Yet ultimately, nothing changes. Nothing will, until the unlikely day arrives when ordinary New York voters rally against a deeply entrenched alliance: politicians who milk their public positions for private gain and state employee unions who milk those politicians in turn.
It is a peculiarly New York ritual that whenever someone in Albany tries to do something that would trim the state’s overgrown payroll and the accompanying bureaucracy, the unions take to the airwaves - even in the absence of a political campaign - to smack down the rebellion. More often than not, they are successful. When they are not, as in the long-running battle over charter schools, they are at least persistent.
But New York’s politicians mostly do what they are expected to do. In return they find a powerful ally in favor of the status quo.
Cleaning up Albany is not rocket science. It has nothing to do with how campaigns are funded, or with electing more Republicans and fewer Democrats, or vice versa. Albany’s temple of corruption rests on four pillars. Knock them down, and the temple falls. But the state lacks a Samson who might have the skill to do the job.
Here are the four changes that would bring New York into line with the large swaths of America that do not need to swallow stomach-settling medicine any time they look too closely at their state lawmakers.
First, eliminate the system in which leaders in each house of the Legislature control the income of fellow members through committee and other leadership assignments. Plum assignments will still go to whomever the leaders favor, of course; that’s just democratic politics in action. But one elected lawmaker should never control the paycheck of another elected lawmaker when they sit together in the same chamber. It gives far too much control to the leadership and provides a lever to deter any challengers who might go up against a corruptly distorted agenda.
Second, give the state’s voters the power to write laws and amend the state Constitution by their own initiative. Voters are likely to pass some seriously ill-considered legislation as a result, but they will also have a chance to fix ill-considered legislation, whether enacted at the ballot or in the statehouse. More importantly, forcing legislators to share lawmaking power with the citizens they serve would dilute the power of those legislators, and thus the potential value of corrupting them, while allowing taxpayers to represent their own interests directly.
Third, reform the state’s byzantine process for nominating candidates for the political branches of government. Some candidates are chosen at party gatherings that are controlled by political bosses, who usually operate at the county level. Others are nominated in primaries which, in most of the state, are held in overwhelmingly one-party districts, where primaries effectively serve as the general election. To get on the primary ballot at all, candidates must run a gauntlet of highly technical petition rules; this gives political bosses a tool to weed out any obstreperous challengers. In New York, the only option to get along is to go along.
Finally, the bosses’ power over state judgeships has to be broken. It is no accident that virtually all of the prosecutions for New York corruption are being brought by federal prosecutors in federal courts. New York’s key trial-level judges, who are oddly known as Supreme Court justices, are chosen in partisan elections in which the same party bosses control access to the ballot. When it comes to political cases, judicial independence in New York is a fiction.
Two years from now, New York voters will have an opportunity they get once every 20 years: the opportunity to demand a constitutional convention at which these sorts of clean-government amendments could be considered. The chances that they will actually vote for such a convention are almost nil, though. The state employee unions and others who feel well-served by the current system, regardless of its corruption, will do everything possible to prevent it. Absent a convention, the only way to get these amendments into the state Constitution is to have the Legislature vote to send them to the voters.
Don’t hold your breath. These are the people who make their living in the current system. They have shown they possess neither the will nor the wherewithal to change it.