New York State's legislators and executive need to be held accountable and their actions made transparent if our government is to function properly and help, rather than harm, the people of New York. Since taking office, I have supported measures that reduce pork barrel spending, ensure fair representation, reform campaign finances, and remove government inefficiencies. As a member of the Assembly Committees on Election Law and Governmental Operations I fight to ensure common-sense governance of New York.
Fighting Pork Barrel Spending
New York State legislators in the Assembly and the Senate, as well as the Governor, have access to member items, a taxpayer-funded discretionary fund that legislators and the governor may disburse to organizations, agencies, and programs in their district. Currently, I have been working hard to reform the member items program in state government to make it equitable and transparent. Although there have been no new dollars in the budget for member items during recessionary times, previously unallocated member items still exist, and they may return in the future. Member items, are distributed by individual legislators in the Senate and Assembly. Legislators and the Governor have total discretion to allocate the monies to organizations, agencies, or programs in their districts. This year, working with State Senator Jose Serrano, I introduced A641. The main purpose of this bill is to make sure the process of distributing these funds, approximately $200 million per year, is done fairly. With my proposal, every member of the Assembly would receive an equal amount of discretionary funds, regardless of seniority or party affiliation. In addition, all member items would be put on the state website. Assembly and Senate members would sign off that they have no relationship with the organizations in their district that are recipients of funds. This act will make spending more transparent and remove any potential corruption. For your information, member items were not included in the state budget the last few years. Coupled with this bill is legislation I have also introduced, A5069, which prohibits a member of the legislature from disbursing moneys pursuant to a memorandum of understanding regarding certain line item appropriations prior to an election. This common sense legislation takes away the ability for legislators to grant discretionary funds within sixty days of an election. These two bills show the serious steps I am taking to reform how business is done in Albany when it comes to unchecked discretionary spending by legislators.
Good governance relies on legislators who are held accountable for actions they have taken. Currently New York State does not have a policy in place that would dissolve pension benefits of an elected official who is convicted of a felony offense committed through abuse of his/her office. I have introduced legislation, A6263, which provides that a member shall forfeit his or her retirement rights and benefits if he or she is convicted of or pleads guilty to certain crimes related to public employment. Previous legislation has been sought that would limit the amount of pension benefits the legislator who has been convicted of a crime would be entitled to, but I believe this does not go far enough. When an elected official is sworn into office to uphold the Constitution and the Laws of New York State they take an oath. This oath sets the highest standards for integrity, and violating this oath of public trust requires criminal penalties. It should also demand that penalties exist which bar elected officials from receiving benefits after their conviction and removal from office.
With the recent cases of fraudulent activity, trust in public officials is an issue in New York State and an issue which I am working to remedy. I have introduced legislation, A5718, which would prohibit members of the legislature from obtaining funding and providing such funds to any business, or not-for-profit, in which such officials may hold official or legal positions. New York State officials are public servants, this service to the people of New York means that officials must serve with honesty and integrity. Unfortunately this is not always the case and elected officials use their authority to redirect state funds to advance their financial interests. This prohibition would stop this practice and help regain some of the trust in public officials which was lost with acts of fraud committed by public officials. Another piece of governmental reform legislation I have introduced is A6267. This would end the practice of holding political fundraisers in Albany County during the legislative session. All too often these fundraisers are attended by lobbyists who are looking to gain better access to public officials on behalf of their clients. Prohibiting these fundraisers will decrease the opportunities certain groups will have to gain undue influence and will level the playing field for all issues in regards to access to public officials.
Cost Saving Measures
The way some business is conducted in Albany needs to be brought into the twenty first century. This is especially true when it comes to voting on the Assembly floor. I have introduced legislation, A7868, which calls for a change to the New York State Constitution. This bill, which passed both the Assembly and the Senate twice, requires a public vote on a ballot referendum in November 2014. It would erase the requirement that bills must physically be on the desks of the legislators and allow bills to be read for vote electronically through computers on the desks of legislators. This measure would result in increased savings both economically as well as environmentally. The bills which are voted on are often very lengthy and in total add up to be an immense amount of paper. This is doubly true because legislators must be supplied with updated paper copies with each change made to a given bill. Allowing for electronic bills will result in a more time and fiscally efficient Legislature.
In 2008, a commission on the future of New York State courts proposed changes which would help to modernize and strengthen Justice courts while maintaining the roles which local municipalities play. I have introduced legislation, A5338, The Justice Court Efficiency and Modernization Act, which would look to improve the financial viability of local Justice courts through the implementation of a four part plan. Part A would establish commissions on combination plans, procedure, transition provisions and construction. Part B works with the financial and budgeting systems of court systems. Part C establishes age and residency requirements for Town and Villages Justices, and finally Part D provides definitions and explains the application of law under the proposed legislation. This bill would modernize the way our local court system works and require more cost efficient procedures.