The question is often asked of middle-school students in social studies classes: How does a bill become a law? Well, in New York, in too many cases, it doesn’t.
In recent years, the State Legislature has earned a reputation as one of the most dysfunctional law-making bodies in the country. Rarely is there bipartisan agreement. In many circles, Albany has become a bad word.
This year, the Legislature approved — and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed — 84 bills into law. That sounds like a lot, until you realize that some 500 bills were untouched, and that this year’s total of passed laws was about a dozen fewer than last year.
Corruption has long plagued Albany, and it is up to lawmakers to stop it. That’s why the Legislature must pass a long-overdue ethics-reform package. For some reason — we wonder why — it just can’t, despite the public’s urgent pleas.
In particular, lawmakers should focus on campaign finance reform. There are now limits on what corporations and individuals can donate to help elect their favorite candidates. But there is a loophole in the law that allows donors to exceed those limits. Corporations and individuals can form limited liability companies, or LLCs, which can anonymously donate vast sums of cash to candidates’ campaigns, far exceeding state limits.
In recent years, the Herald has repeatedly called on the state to do away with the loophole. It appeared in May that Cuomo was applying sufficient pressure to the Legislature to eliminate it. But nothing happened, and it remains in place. That’s just sad.
At the same time, lawmakers often use “discretionary funds” — state grants that they can award to local organizations — to promote themselves. The groups that benefit from the funds often campaign for the candidates who awarded the grants — at times quietly, and at others not so quietly. Sometimes lawmakers have their names plastered on athletic fields and municipal buildings. In effect, legislators can electioneer with state money. That gives an unfair advantage to incumbents. It’s little wonder that legislative seats rarely change hands.
We need to enact a system to ensure that state discretionary funds are spent wisely — and that lawmakers do not receive undue credit for securing money that was never in doubt. At the very least, they should be obliged to inform the public when offering discretionary funds to groups.
Now, it wasn’t all bad this year. We commend the Legislature for passing, and the governor for signing, a measure to grant unlimited sick leave for Sept. 11 first responders who have since developed illnesses as a result of their work at ground zero. The brave men and women who helped save thousands of lives should continue to receive as much aid and care as possible.
We also agree with the Legislature’s and the governor’s commitment to honor the legacy of Malvernite and local hero NYPD Detective Steven McDonald by renaming a 10-mile stretch of the Southern State Parkway in his name.
The Legislature also passed, and the governor signed, a bill to regulate e-cigarette “vaping” in public areas in order to curb second-hand smoke. Studies show that electronic cigarettes can contain up to 10 times the number of carcinogens and four times as many toxic metals as cigarettes. We agree with lawmakers that we must ensure that our families are no longer plagued by unwanted cigarette smoke in public places. All of us have a right to clean air.
On June 20, the Legislature agreed on a bill to allow those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder to be prescribed medical marijuana. If Cuomo signs the bill into law, PTSD will become the 12th condition on a list of diseases that already can be treated with medical marijuana, including cancer, chronic pain and epilepsy. PTSD is a mental illness that is too often overlooked, experts say.
Beyond this handful of measures, what notable legislation did lawmakers agree on? The standout bills were few and far between. And that’s just wrong, particularly because the Legislature once again failed to properly address the corruption and transparency issues that have plagued the state for years, if not decades.
We need a Legislature that is ready and willing to face corruption head-on. We can only say: Better luck next session. This one was largely fruitless.