Ballot measure would strip corrupt politicians of their pensions: "Hard-working New Yorkers are getting screwed"

ALBANY, New York — For years, New York lawmakers convicted of abusing their power and sent off to prison had at least one thing to look forward to: a generous state pension.

That practice could come to an end in November when voters will be asked whether to change the state constitution to authorize judges to strip pensions from corrupt politicians.

Top lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo have argued the change will act as a powerful deterrent in a state where 30 state lawmakers have left office since 2000 because of criminal charges or allegations of ethical misconduct.

Some good-government advocates question whether the loss of a pension will be enough to keep errant lawmakers honest. But in the face of decades of legislative inaction on ethics, even the critics say something is better than nothing.

"It's in the chicken soup category — it can't hurt," said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "Will it make much of a difference in Albany? No."

This is not the first such measure aimed at pensions. A 2011 law allowed judges to revoke or reduce pensions of crooked lawmakers, but it didn't apply to sitting lawmakers at the time. A constitutional amendment is needed to cover all lawmakers, no matter when they were elected. This year's ballot question, if approved, will close that loophole.

There has been no opposition to the measure by any public official. The new rules, if approved by voters, would apply to all lawmakers going forward — though not to lawmakers already sentenced for previous crimes.

"I believe 100 percent we should revoke the pension of any elected official who is found guilty of official corruption. I'm outraged as a taxpaying citizen," Cuomo said when lawmakers first voted to place the constitutional amendment on the ballot.

About half of the states already have similar pension forfeiture laws on the books, though the laws and constitutional provisions governing the issue vary from state to state. California, Connecticut and Virginia allow for pensions to be revoked when an official commits a crime related to their official duties. Some states spell out specific crimes, while others take a broader approach. In Oklahoma, for example, public officials can lose their pension for committing any felony.

Calls to crack down on corruption in New York picked up momentum two years ago after both Democratic Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos were convicted of corruption, though the convictions have since been reversed because of a U.S. Supreme Court verdict. Prosecutors intend to retry the men.

Regardless, the pensions they had coming for their years of service — nearly $100,000 a year for Skelos and $85,000 to $98,000 a year for Silver — were never imperiled.

"Hard-working New Yorkers are getting screwed, paying into a system so corrupt politicians can enjoy six-figure pensions and walk free," said Brandon Muir, director of the government watchdog group Reclaim New York.

Good-government advocates wanted far more than just the pension-forfeiture amendment. They noted that judges already have the authority to impose fines on corrupt lawmakers equal to the value of their pension.

Term limits, tighter campaign finance rules, a ban on side jobs for lawmakers and more robust enforcement power were all proposed over the past couple of years. Instead, lawmakers have passed only modest reforms including greater disclosure of the outside income earned by lawmakers, who make an annual base salary of $79,500.

New York's pension-forfeiture question won't be the only referendum on the state ballot this fall. Voters will also be asked to change rules relating to forest preservation and will decide whether to call a constitutional convention, where delegates would consider tweaking or rewriting the state's principal political document.