When I was first elected to the New York State Assembly in 2012, I promised my constituents that I would work to restore the people’s faith in our government and root out public corruption. Recently, those efforts took a substantial step forward. Some might think that’s a reference to Sheldon Silver having stepped down as Speaker of the State Assembly. That is part of the story. As the Wall Street Journal reported, I was one of only a handful of members to immediately speak up in the Democratic conference and question the initial rush to support Speaker Silver. But more importantly, I have consistently been focused on the long-term changes we need to have a lasting impact on government ethics in our state. And it is on that front that we are now seeing real progress.
I welcome Governor Cuomo’s call for a five-point ethics platform, and in particular the component of that plan that would reform a broken and nonsensical aspect of the state pension system. For two years I have served as the lead Assembly sponsor of a bill that seeks the identical result as Governor Cuomo’s proposal – a state constitutional amendment to strip state pension benefits from public officials convicted of felonies that involve a breach of the public’s trust. This year the bill number for this idea is A.377. New Yorkers I speak to – young and old – left, right and center – simply won’t take seriously the notion that we’re cleaning up Albany so long as taxpayer dollars continue to go to those convicted felons who sit in prison for having violated their commitments to the public.
When I first introduced the bill I was told that this concept did not have a chance to pass the legislature. Yet cynicism isn’t something that I care to give into. So I pushed forward and began building bipartisan support for my bill in the State Assembly. By the time I held a press conference in Albany on this issue last year, the bill had gained 60 Assembly co-sponsors and it then passed the Assembly Governmental Operations Committee, marking the first time a state constitutional amendment on this topic had received a favorable committee vote.
Today I’m pleased to announce that this legislation has 93 Assembly co-sponsors from both parties, and the idea of stripping state pensions from corrupt officials has now received its biggest endorsement. Governor Cuomo’s ethics proposal has put the issue front and center. The Governor is joined in his support for this constitutional amendment by editorial boards across our state and good-government groups including the League of Women Voters of New York State and Common Cause New York.
In 2011, the Assembly passed the Public Integrity Reform Act, which was a step in the right direction. This law strips pensions for officials who abuse their power; however, it only applies to those who entered into the state pension system after the law’s enactment, and therefore it covers only a very small percentage of today’s public officials. This loophole in the law must be closed so that anyone who violates the public’s trust – including those who entered the pension system before the 2011 law was put in place – would forfeit their pensions.
Ultimately, as with any state constitutional amendment, this proposal will have to go before the people of New York in a referendum. I sincerely hope New Yorkers will demand that their representatives in Albany will give the public the opportunity to cast that vote.
By embracing pension forfeiture, Governor Cuomo is on the side of the people of our great state. Now, with my existing legislation and the governor’s support for real ethics reforms, I believe we are headed in the right direction. Government officials who betray the public’s trust should not collect a tax-payer funded pension, plain and simple. The time to act on this is now.