New life was given to the term “cesspool of corruption” when Sen. Malcolm Smith, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson and former Assemblyman Nelson Castro were implicated in federal investigations last week. It’s a term all too often used to describe the opaque dynamics and back-door deals that sadly continue to characterize the New York state government.
As a freshman member of the New York State Assembly, this is the last impression I wish my family and the communities I represent to have about the tireless work so many of my colleagues in the Legislature do every day. Yet, understandably, public frustration and distrust grow with each new scandal in Albany.
As lawmakers, we have to ask ourselves: What can be done from a legislative perspective to keep this same story from repeating itself?
The creation of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics in 2011 was an important first step, reforming the regulation of ethics and lobbying in New York by establishing an independent body with oversight of both the Executive and Legislative branches. However, JCOPE does little to address the underlying conditions that allow such corruption to manifest in the first place.
Until elected officials feel that their community members–not big money–are the primary stakeholders in their elections and legislative agendas, we will continue to see this kind of corruption in Albany. There is no single measure that will completely root out the possibility for abuse and opportunism, but we can create an environment through which the incentives are greatly diminished.
We need to put our community groups, our neighborhood associations and our working families back in the center of our state elections. We need to get serious about finally implementing comprehensive campaign finance reform, or we will fail to challenge the special interests that are drowning out the voices of everyday New Yorkers.
Unless this engagement happens, we risk New Yorkers growing apathetic about what happens in Albany, as they see that their needs are not really being represented. By implementing public matching funds–which New York City has enjoyed for over two decades–we not only create fairer state elections, but push candidates to engage more on a grassroots level.
Unfortunately, as federal investigations and ethics violations become a given with each new legislative session, it is this community outreach that ultimately suffers. There has been an extreme lack of consistency regarding member items, discretionary funding for legislators to distribute to community-based organizations in their districts. No member item funding was awarded in this year’s budget, and our communities are starving.
I understand the skepticism behind reinstating discretionary funding, but we have to at least begin to turn the discussion toward ways to increase transparency and accountability in these transactions rather than crippling local community groups that are the backbone of a strong and efficient democracy.
This change won’t happen overnight, but we have to plant a seed for something to grow organically.
If we support fair election reform, a commitment to vital local investments and strong third party oversight, we can usher in a new era in Albany. This will take a lot of negotiation and debate, but we must be proactive if we are to truly call ourselves progressive.
Let’s take this as an opportunity to prove that the people’s house still serves the people.
Assemblyman Walter T. Mosley serves New York’s 57th district, representing the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and parts of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.