When Transparency Is Not Enough: Disclosing Lawmakers’ Outside Income Won’t Do Much

February 13, 2015

New Yorkers who want to reduce corruption in Albany should read The Trouble with Disclosure: It Doesn’t Work by Jesse Eisenger, which was published this week by Pro Publica and also appeared in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal. Eisenger makes the case that the disclosure* of various things hasn’t led to any reductions in bad behavior, and “if lawmakers want to end a bad practice, ban it. Having them admit it is not enough.”

Governor Cuomo has proposed the disclosure of lawmakers’ outside income as a major reform in response to the arrest of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption charges. Unfortunately, disclosure of that income is not enough and will do little or nothing to change behavior. If the governor wants to shut the loophole that allows legal bribery via payments to a lawmaker’s employer, he should support restricting or banning outside income.

Sadly, truly meaningful reforms are not on the table in Albany. Even if outside income is banned, it will remain extremely easy for deep-pocketed special interests to give large amounts of money to lawmakers via the LLC loophole, the housekeeping account loophole, and various other scurvy methods that have made Albany synonymous with corrupt state government. So far, systemic reforms have remained a fantasy in Albany. This includes the very simple and intuitive reform of banning contributions from anyone with contracts, subsidies, or tax abatements from New York State.

* We will let Eisenger off the hook for conflating deliberately opaque disclosures – like credit card and product disclosure statements – with real transparency. But, as advocates for increased transparency, we agree that while transparency is necessary for a healthy democracy, it is often not sufficient.