Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pursuing ethics reform that would bar state legislators from holding jobs or owning businesses and would establish the expectation -- though not necessarily the pay -- that they are full-time elected officials.
It's the kind of reform that could potentially force Assemblyman Steve Hawley and State Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer to either quit the Legislature or give up their outside business interests.
During her visit to Batavia yesterday, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said the proposal isn't specifically directed at any current elected officials, including Hawley and Ranzenhofer, but she supports the reform.
When elected officials earn income from sources other than their government jobs, it creates an inherent conflict of interest, she said.
"If you want to serve the people of your state, and this is the highest privilege there is no matter what your level of elective office, you need to respect it and not try to serve two masters," Hochul said.
"We want legislators focused on them (their constituents) and not their outside income," Hochul added.
These proposals have come along before, Hawley said, and he thinks the idea of a full-time legislature misses the advantages of elected officials living a life outside of politics.
He said one of the problems in this country is we've gotten away from the idea of citizen legislators.
"When a representative's only source of income is being an elected official they lose touch with the reality of everyday life and what real people go through," Hawley said. "No outside income diminishes their grasp on reality.
"When being an elected official is your only source of income, you look at it as an occupation and not an avocation," Hawley said. "That means more conflicts of interest and you need to keep your jobs no matter the legislation and the conflict is greater 100 times over because when that's all you do and it's your only source of income, you will say or do anything to keep that job."
Ranzenhofer, an attorney, agreed with Hawley's main objection to the proposed reform.
"Having outside business interests, whether it's insurance, or being an attorney, or a doctor, or whatever, brings a much more diverse Legislature," Ranzenhofer said. "It means people with real-world experience are serving. I cannot imagine a world where every single member of the legislature is a professional legislator, where that's all they did is legislation and politics."
Hochul said the reform isn't aimed specifically at Hawley or Ranzenhofer, and perhaps for existing members of the Legislature, there could be some sort of grandfather clause that would allow current members to continue to serve.
"I'm not talking about them individually," Hochul said. "I'm talking about the system as a whole. The people of the state deserve to have full-time (legislators)."
Ranzenhofer served on the Senate's judiciary committee and he said his up-to-date, real-work experience working in courts helps inform the debates.
"It's helpful to have people who are engaged in these issues in the real world so we can advise people on how legislation could affect people," Ranzenhofer said.
Hawley has been both an elected official and an insurance company owner, going back to his days on the County Legislature, for 39 years. He said he has consistently handled potential conflicts this way for four decades: he seeks the advice of legal counsel for the elected body.
"There have been a number of occasions where I've asked legal counsel about something we were voting on, whether there was an issue," Hawley said. "There has never been any finding of a conflict that has come to the fore."
If the insurance industry has ever thought they had it in the bag with Hawley, that simply hasn't been the case, he said. He has on several occasions, he said, voted against the lobbying requests of the insurance industry. One example he raised was legislation that would have required agents to disclose to new clients that they were earning a commission from the sale of a policy. The agents' association opposed the legislation and Hawley voted in favor of the reform.
"I think probably 99 percent of the people understand that, but even if just 1 percent don't understand it, then I don't have a problem (with the disclosure)," Hawley said.
Though he keeps busy with attending public events and meeting with constituents, Hawley said he isn't convinced there is enough work in Albany to sustain a full-time Legislature.