The ‘Reform Albany Act,’ Explained

ALBANY—A day after leaking them to the Times, several senior officials in the Paterson administration held a conference call to release details of the “Reform Albany Act,” which will be a major part of the governor’s State of the State address tomorrow.

And unabashed spin!

“The reform Albany act brings a level of independence to the oversight in Albany,” said Peter Kauffmann, Paterson’s director of communications. “The governor feels that ethics reform is a key that will unlock the ability to move into other areas: to bring about real fiscal reform, to bring about sustainable and sensible budgeting, to open up more opportunity for economic development and job creation. This is one step towards an overarching view of how we begin the path to economic recovery.”

The details of the proposal are broad-reaching: a new super panel would be created to oversee legislative ethics and executive ethics, ripping responsibility from the moribund Legislative Ethics Commission and blowing up the Commission on Public Integrity, which Paterson has proposed before. It would be stocked by a 10-member nominating committee based on the Commission on Judicial Nomination, which by super-majority would pick the commissioners of the  Paterson’s staffers believe this will create another “layer of independence” and allow for “uniform enforcement” so “we all play by the same rules.”

Paterson will also propose term limits for executives and legislators as well as stricter limits on campaign contributions, with public financing of some races. This could cost some $30 million in the 2012 cycle, officials estimated. The power to enforce campaign finance laws will be moved from the state Board of Elections to the new commission. The laws will also be tightened.

The officials said Paterson has not discussed these proposals, substantively, with legislators. They would have minimal incentive to enact them–their current system of ethics enforcement has resulted in no major enforcement actions–even as legislative conduct has fueled countless newspaper stories about scandal. This year also saw the conviction of Joe Bruno, who served for over a decade as Senate majority leader.

“Those of us that have observed what has gone on in the past year, I think there’s a sense that people are more open to reform,” Kauffman said. “I think people are starting to understand the need for ethics reform. I think if you look back in history, major scandals or times of turmoil have traditionally resulted in landmark ethics reforms, and I think this one of those times. People in New York are paying closer attention to ethics right now, and certainly the conduct of elected officials. That’s the sort of playing field we’re on.”

He was asked if Paterson would abide by the new campaign finance limits, even if they are not enacted. Kauffmann, a naval veteran, offered this reply:

“The governor is going to play by the rules as they are now,” Kauffmann said. “To give you some foreign policy perspective, I believe the United States in the 1980s supported the principle of nuclear disarmament, but we certainly were not going to stop producing nuclear weapons with the Soviet Union half a world away.”