Time to Restore Public Trust in Government

As we embark on this new legislative year, I want to address an issue that has been much in the news lately — ethics in Albany. Since first running for office, I have been committed to bringing more transparency, openness and accountability to state government. I strongly believe in public service. I am a full-time legislator. I have never taken per diems or travel funds for doing my job. I believe that the majority of my Assembly colleagues are in government to do the right thing. Nearly half of us were elected since 2010 and most of us ran on restoring public trust in government.

Several ethics reform measures were passed last year in the state budget and are open for public comment as they prepare to go into effect. These include greater disclosure of outside income. With the enactment of this reform, legislators must disclose all of their outside income: From whom they receive it; the services provided; and whether there is any connection to their public duties or state government.

Further, the budget reforms clarified restrictions on the usage of campaign funds for inappropriate items such as residential home purchases, mortgage payments, rent, clothing, tuition, sports tickets, and dues for health and country clubs.

Additional measures, which were passed into law, include changes in the Assembly’s per diem policy. These strengthen the verification method by which members receive per diems and travel reimbursements, discouraging abuse. Personally, since I have been in office, I have refused to accept taxpayer-funded per diems or travel reimbursements. Most of my constituents don’t get paid just for going to work and I don’t believe I should either.

Clearly other meaningful election and ethics reforms are needed. Critical is stripping corrupt politicians of their state pension. I sponsor A.7704, in which convicted public officials would forfeit their pensions. While the two leaders recently convicted will both receive pensions under current law, the Assembly and Senate are working to reach agreement on a constitutional amendment to finally make this change.

Frankly, the most insidious challenge to real ethics reform is the corrosive role of money in politics. The staggering amount of big money raised and spent around  New York state elections breeds distrust. We must reform the system and move toward a model of reasonable contribution limits alongside a limited public financing program to match small private donations.

One thing we can do right away is close the LLC loophole. Under current practice, Limited Liability Companies are treated as individuals, permitting each to contribute up to $150,000 annually. This loophole allows for multiple donations when one person or corporation owns multiple LLCs, exceeding already generous contribution limits and allowing for the influence of corporations above citizenry. Assembly bill A.6975, which I also co-sponsor, would close this loophole. It passed the Assembly with bipartisan support and awaits action from the Senate.

These and other measures are essential to restoring public confidence that the state works for you — not special interests, not self-serving politicians. Government has and can continue to do outstanding and innovative work. At best, elected officials should be in partnership with our constituents and communities. But for any good, healthy partnership to work, there must be trust. I welcome your thoughts on how best to restore public trust in our state government

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About Diner Dialogues

Didi Barrett was elected to the New York State Assembly in a special election in March 2012 and re-elected to a full term in November 2012. Her district, the 106th AD, covers some of the most beautiful parts of Columbia and Dutchess Counties. She has deep roots in the Hudson Valley and came to elected office after a career as a community activist, writer and longtime leader of not-for-profit organizations. Didi is passionate about the agricultural, natural, cultural and historic resources of the Hudson Valley and their critical importance as economic engines and job generators. She is also a great fan of the iconic diners that dot the region. As a member of the Assembly she serves on the Committees on Aging; Agriculture; Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry; Mental Health; Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development and Veterans Affairs.
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