There’s a joke among people who don’t think much of the State of Alabama, that the state’s motto is, “Thank God for Mississippi.” It’s supposed to indicate that yes, Alabama is bad, but Mississippi is worse. I’m not taking a stand. I haven’t been to Mississippi. I’ve spent some time in Alabama, not enough to know a lot about it though. My observations tell me that Alabama has its good and its bad points, like pretty much everywhere else.
People who live in Illinois, or New Jersey, or anywhere else with a reputation for political corruption, have to be saying to themselves these days, “Thank God for New York.” Why? Because New York, it’s state legislature in particular, makes other states look good by comparison. In 2014, Sheldon Silver was Speaker of the New York State Assembly and Dean Skelos was Majority Leader of the New York State Senate. Each was indicted for political corruption, Silver in February and Skelos in May. Each lost his leadership position. That’s not automatic in New York. But they remained in office as an Assemblyman and State Senator. Each was convicted too. Silver on November 30th and Skelos on December 11th. Silver was charged with using his political power to line his pockets to the tune of $4 million. Skelos used his power to line his son’s pockets, getting his son highly paid jobs in which he wielded his dad’s political influence either with the state or with Nassau County. Upon felony conviction, each was removed from the legislature. That is automatic. Considering their age, Skelos and Silver could each spend the rest of their lives in prison, but while in prison each will collect a state pension. The exact amount hasn’t been made public, but it’ll be around $100,000 a year. Not too long ago, the state pension system was reformed so that elected officials convicted of corruption do lose their pension, but it only applies to recently elected officials and Silver has been in Albany for 40 years, Skelos for 30.
The convictions themselves are terrible, but what’s worse is they aren’t unusual. I am not sure my count is accurate, but I believe that makes five legislative leaders convicted and removed from office in 15 years. Some newspaper editorials are hailing the most recent convictions as an avenue to legislative reform. Maybe so, but please reread the first two sentences of this paragraph. They give me reasonable doubt. In fact, one State Senator was quoted in a newspaper as saying he had doubts that new laws were necessary, because the leaders were convicted of violating existing laws.
Power in New York State is unusually centralized. . The leaders of each house have close to dictatorial control of the legislature. The leaders aren’t subject to term limits, committee chairmen are weak and revolts against leadership are unheard of. Budget negotiations take place between the Governor and the two legislative leaders and they are frequently described as, “Three men in a room.” The fact that two of the three have been convicted in one year has lead to public speculation that the third man in the room, the Governor, or senior members of his staff may soon be implicated in corruption as well. I have no idea.
I suppose increasing the power of the rest of the legislature would help. Meaningful power for committee chairmen and term limits for the Speaker and the Majority Leader would be a beginning. I wish I knew what would help. With five leaders shot down in 15 years, I hope somebody knows how to fix it and I hope somebody does fix it.