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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Building Better Legislators

Five state legislators do the perp walk on criminal charges in five weeks, with maybe more on the way.

I always try to look at the bright side. One of these legislators wore a wire for three years and there haven’t been nearly as many arrests or indictments as some might have figured. Another silver lining is that a bunch of the charges really aren’t about corrupting government functions, but about political greed and personal sleaze. So we’ve got all of that going for us. Call me Mr. Sunshine.

By some counts, we’ve had 32 legislators and other state officials busted since 2006.

Some of it is simply bad socialization, a lack of training and understanding about expected behavior within a group. First-term legislators used to be expected to sit and watch and learn. No more. Now you see elected officials take the oath, and before they even figure out where the restrooms are, they are speaking at media conferences and hearings, posting videos and generally calling attention to themselves. Mostly, their insipid email blasts and Tweets demonstrate that they can be boring or uninformed. They are going through the motions of being legislators without grasping what it is they might be accomplishing or why. They come to see themselves as independent agents, and even other legislators are more like props than colleagues.

They don’t owe anything to anyone but themselves, not even their constituents.

So now we’ve got a drumbeat to do something. Something. But what? It’s pretty easy to wave our finger and heap scorn on someone stupid enough to accept an envelope slid across a desk. What’s going on here isn’t all one thing, and no one thing is going to make things better. It’s clear that many politicians are so ingrained in the system as to be clueless.

On May 7, as many of us were reading about the indictment of one state senator, another chairing a hearing on proposals to establish “clean campaigns,” funded partly by the public, was shutting out good government groups and the public from testifying or even watching. Some of the recent arrests and indictments stemmed from desperation to raise campaign cash, but several senators declared fierce opposition to the idea of taxpayer dollars paying for any part of (their opponent’s) political campaigns. Forms of it work in Canada, the U.K., Israel, Maine, Arizona, New York City and other exotic places. For some legislators, it’s a horror. That same day, I received another taxpayer-funded newsletter that declared, “Thank You Ed Mangano For Not Raising Taxes.”

And it slides. That’s where this all starts. It sounds like a piddly little thing, hardly noticeable. So is a cancer cell. Instead of tossing around words like “corruption” and “ethics,” we first need to concentrate on “standards” and “expectations.”

Even before that, we must figure out what we want legislators and elected officials to be.

There have already been numerous calls to jack up legislators’ salaries and make them “full-time” without outside income. Define income. New York legislators are already too holed up in Albany. The entire government center and the Capitol used to be open for citizens to stroll around and observe. Not any more, and it isn’t healthy at all. Making this an official career will make things worse.

New York is one of only four states in which legislatures meet throughout every year. Those other legislatures (California, Pennsylvania and Michigan) are at least as messed up as ours.

The American legislative system was designed around citizen-legislators. It is part of our political heritage. If we build a better citizenship, we will get better legislators.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net