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NY State Senate Democrats say reform of legislators' outside income should not wait

Karen DeWitt

Democrats in the New York State Senate are pushing for some reforms that directly address problems that led to the arrest and resignation of the Assembly speaker. They want to virtually ban all outside income for lawmakers.

The proposals come two and a half weeks after the Democratic Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver was arrested on corruption charges, and one week after he resigned as speaker.

Silver is charged with subverting his employment at two private law firms to gain nearly $6 million in kickbacks and bribes.

Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins say the time has come to drastically curtail the outside income netted by legislators, whose jobs as senators and assemblymembers are considered to be part time.

“We can’t serve two masters,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We are here to serve the public.”

Sen. Brad Hoylman is proposing a bill that would impose limits to state lawmakers’ outside similar to restrictions in place for members of Congress. Outside income there is limited to 15 percent of a legislator’s salary. In the state legislature, where the base pay is just under $80,000, that would be $12,000 a year. Hoylman says it would “provide a sterilizing cure.”

“I figure if it’s good enough for the U.S. Congress, it’s good enough for us,” said Hoylman.
Representing law clients or giving financial advice would not be permitted. Jobs like teaching part time at a college would be allowed.

Sen. Gustavo Rivera , who’s predecessor in the Senate, Pedro Espada, is currently serving a prison sentence for corruption,  says his only outside income is $6,000 from teaching two classes a year.

“Someone being in front of a classroom teaching college twice a year is very different than somebody representing clients that none of us know,” Rivera said.

The Democrats say they would also create a commission to decide every four years whether lawmakers base pay is adequate  so that they don’t need to seek extra employment.

The Senate Democrats are pushing many of the same proposals that were recently outlined by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They add another idea not on Cuomo’s list, banning the prevalence of LLC's or Limited Liability companies, used as a loophole by campaign donors to skirt contribution limits.

The governor has said he’ll hold up the budget if he does not get total disclosure of lawmakers’ outside income, and an end to the abuse of taxpayer funded expense accounts. He also wants to end the practice of using campaign funds for personal spending.

Stewart-Cousins says while she supports the governor’s efforts, she doesn’t think the ethics reforms even need to be tied to the budget, and should be done sooner than the April budget deadline.  

“We need to pass our bills now,” said Stewart -. “It shouldn’t have to be part of the budget conversation at all, to be quite honest.”

The Democrats, who are in the minority in the state Senate, need majority party Republican votes in order to enact their proposals. 

A spokesman for Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos, accused the Democrats of “grandstanding," and said instead of press releases, “Senate Republicans are working with the governor and the Assembly to get real results and real reforms."

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.