Collins: Is your state legislature more corrupt than mine?

New York TimesMay 15, 2013 

Gail Collins

 

EARL WILSON

Let's talk about what makes a delinquent state legislature. I know it's been on your mind.

The newest political trend in New York involves corrupt state legislators attempting to curry favor with federal prosecutors by wearing wires to work. Perhaps there have been worse fads. There was a time, not long ago, when assembly members could punch in early in the day, leave to play golf and still be recorded as voting “yes” on every single bill that hit the floor.

Officials recently revealed that a 74-year-old senator named Shirley Huntley secretly recorded assorted pols whom she invited over for a chat while claiming to be laid up with a broken ankle. She was sentenced to prison for embezzlement anyway, but not before putting an entirely new spin on the concept of visiting the sick.

There was also a state assemblyman who was wired up for virtually his entire two-term career, before resigning recently to pursue a new life as a defendant in a perjury case.

All of this raises some interesting questions. Is everybody in Albany now operating under the presumption that everything they say is being secretly recorded for the FBI? Does that improve the legislative ethos or just lead to a lot of uncomfortable breaks in conversation?

Also, is New York's state legislature the most corrupt in the country? At last count we had 32 state officials get into deep trouble over the last few years, including four former Senate majority or minority leaders. The offenses ranged from taking bribes to throwing coffee in the face of a staff member. The last was not actually a corruption matter, but it was definitely behavior we wish to discourage.

It's quite a record, but there are still other states in contention.

“We have three people in the state legislature facing trial. Four of the last seven governors have gone to jail,” said Andy Shaw of Illinois' Better Government Association. “And we're a fiscal train wreck.”

That four-of-the-last-seven-governors record is really hard to argue with. New York, of course, had the disastrous resignation of Eliot Spitzer. But that was about sex. Sex scandals, while embarrassing, are far less depressing than financial corruption. I would way rather have an important elected official who patronized prostitutes than one who spent $60,000 of the taxpayers' money on sushi and lobster. Although in New York we have recently had both.

Still, we're not alone. “We used to say — thank God for Illinois,” said Gerald Benjamin, a former Albany hand who is now an executive at the State University of New York in New Paltz.

And then there was the Alabama bingo debacle and the Arizona Fiesta Bowl scandal. Louisiana showed up at the top of a study of political corruption that calculated the number of convictions per capita. Georgia came out as worst on a corruption risk report from the State Integrity Investigation, which measured factors like accountability, transparency and ethics enforcement.

New Jersey got the best grade.

“There was an audible gasp across the entire state,” said Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.

“It was counterintuitive for us as well,” said Gordon Witkin, the managing editor at the Center for Public Integrity. Witkin's theory is that New Jersey got to be good by being bad. “Where there has been a major, major scandal, that was the catalyst for very specific reform.”

Well, New Jersey has had its problems. Over the last decade there was Gov. James McGreevey's affair with the male Israeli poet. (The state could have accepted the gay part, and the adultery part, if only McGreevey had not decided to prove his love by making the poet head of homeland security.) That was followed by a slew of political indictments, after which the legislature did end some of its most notorious ethics loopholes. But it's still, you know, New Jersey.

It's at this point in every rant about state legislators that we stop to point out that most of them are honest, and some downright heroic. Really, just try spending a good chunk of your life as a reformer in the New York state Senate. See how you like it.

Also, some entire state legislatures are both honest and effective. People speak highly of the one in Nebraska. (It's unicameral!) I once covered the Connecticut legislature, where people took their jobs very seriously, holding endless public hearings on every bill and then having long, earnest debates in which the outcome was not preordained. But that was way back in the 1970s, when Joseph Lieberman was the Senate majority leader, and even at that early age was being accused by the liberals of selling out.

At the time, the Connecticut lawmakers did not think they were all that great. What they wanted, more than anything else, was to be like New York. Yes! Legislators in New York, they kept noting, got serious salaries, and staff, and offices. In Connecticut you were lucky if they gave you a desk.

Reformers call this the drive for professionalization. I'm sure it helps give a good legislature more juice, but when one is off track, it just gives everybody more places to be ineffective. When I first went to Albany, I walked through a mall of offices so grand it felt like something out of the chariot scene in “Ben Hur.” Yet the rank-and-file members had nothing to do in their expansive quarters but send press releases to their constituents. There were almost never any public hearings on anything. And the debates were conducted for the benefit of those people on the golf course.

What does make a difference? I think it's just that some states have a good political culture. Generally, the good ones are places where the lawmakers have serious work to do beyond passing thick mystery bills that come thonking down from the governor's office minutes before the voting begins. States with two real, functioning political parties that feel at least a modest obligation to work together.

“There's a thing down here called the Virginia Way — being as collaborative and bipartisan as possible,” said Dan Palazzolo, a professor of political science at the University of Richmond.

There's a thing up in Albany called “three guys in a room,” in which all the serious decisions are made behind closed doors, by the assembly speaker, the Senate majority leader and the governor. Someday, I believe, New York may evolve to the point where there will be two guys and a woman in the room. But that may be the most we can expect.

The other day in Albany, the Republicans decided to take the unusual step of having a public hearing on a campaign financing bill that they opposed. When supporters of the bill showed up to testify, the legislators closed the public hearing to the public.

It feels hopeless. But there are definitely places in more desperate straits. “We don't have a corrupt legislature, but in part that's because they don't have a lot to sell — they don't have that much discretion,” said Joe Mathews, the author of “California Crackup.”

“I wish we had a little more corruption,” Mathews mused. “That would mean we could do things.”

OK — not the way we are intending to go.

You can reform a political culture, but it's a big lift. First, the voters would have to convince the legislators that they're being watched by someone other than the lobbyists. Then they'd have to press for laws that would force a change of behavior, like nonpartisan redistricting and ethics reform. Then the voters would have to follow up, year after year, until the old guard was replaced by a whole new generation who went into politics with dreams of drafting serious legislation, rather than just bringing more stuff back into the district or, at worst, shaking down some landlord at the airport for a thousand bucks.

It's a lot of watching. Or, failing that, we could just have everybody wear wires.

Email Ms. Collins at editorial@nytimes.com.

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