It is time for New York State to take public corruption seriously. Some reforms have been enacted, others have been proposed, investigations have been conducted, and yet one can safely assume that there will be more reasons for disappointing headlines. Unfortunately, an aspect of the legal landscape undermines public confidence in state government: Public officials in New York can accept bribes, steal taxpayer funds or otherwise engage in public corruption and nonetheless still collect a state pension check every month for the rest of their lives.
That is why I have introduced a bill in the State Assembly that would permit the stripping of pensions from public officials who are convicted of a felony involving a violation of the public trust (A.7173). This proposed constitutional amendment is far more comprehensive than a 2011 statute that applied a similar rule to officials who first entered the pension system after it became law. The vast majority of public officials (myself included, as I served on the City Council in White Plains before being elected to the Assembly in 2012) are therefore presently guaranteed their pensions no matter how reprehensible their actions.
That convicted felons who violated their oaths of office sit in prison collecting state pensions not only damages public faith in the purpose of our pension system but also is a disservice to all of the public officials who serve the people of New York honorably and have earned their pensions. Furthermore, it is a clear waste of taxpayer dollars.
The time has come for a change, and thankfully more and more of my colleagues are recognizing that. At the start of this year, 40 Assembly members were sponsors of A.7173. In March, when we held a press conference on the bill, the number stood at just over 60. There are now 91 sponsors of the bill, representing well over the 76 votes needed to pass a bill on the Assembly floor. Both a majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans in the chamber support the measure. The Senate companion of this bill, S. 1133, is sponsored by State Sen. Neil Breslin, and he is one of 15 state senators who have registered their support for this legislation, along with the Senate Democratic Conference, which endorsed the bill last month.
Passing a constitutional amendment is not easy—nor should it be. Bill A.7173 would need to pass through four committees (Governmental Operations, Codes, Ways and Means and Judiciary), or possibly even five (Rules), before even reaching the floor of the Assembly. The bill would need to pass both the Assembly and state Senate in two separate terms of the State Legislature. And then the constitutional amendment would need to be voted on by the people of New York. However, from speaking to voters of every age and persuasion, I have every confidence that if given the opportunity to improve our state Constitution in this way, voters would approve the referendum overwhelmingly.
Meanwhile, people around the state are taking notice. Our bill has gained the support of two prominent good- government groups, the League of Women Voters of New York State and Common Cause New York. And the bill has been endorsed by the editorial boards of the Journal News, Schenectady Daily Gazette, Utica Observer-Dispatch and Watertown Daily Times.
Government officials who betray the public trust should not collect a pension in the same way as those who serve honorably, and I’m pleased that so many of my colleagues agree with me. No matter how serious the offense, current law still assures most public employees that their state pensions cannot be challenged. However, with enthusiastic bipartisan support for this legislation, I believe a new day is coming in Albany.