EDITORIAL: Time is ripe for full disclosure

NEW YORKERS PAY some of the country’s highest overall tax bills. So how come a new study finds this state has one of the fairest tax systems in the nation? Just thinking about it can make your head hurt.

The study on taxation fairness is from the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. It looks at how the state and local tax burden is distributed across all taxpayers in each state based on their income. It shows that the lower your income is, the more of what you earn goes to pay taxes. It also demonstrates that states have the ability to reduce that inequality… if their leaders want to. And it’s not just about poor people. The middle class gets clobbered, too. The details are at ww.itep.org/whopays.

One feature that puts New York among the dozen states ranked as the fairest is our progressive income tax. But if the distribution of the tax burden is considered fair here, imagine how middle class and lower income taxpayers get screwed in the least fair states like Washington, Florida and Texas. And after all the economic storms of recent years, how did New York sustain this allegedly fairer tax system? One key player has been Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the state Assembly for the last two decades.

Over the last few days all three of the members of the Assembly whose districts include parts of Columbia County called for Mr. Silver to resign as speaker following his arrest on federal corruption charges January 22 and now he reportedly has agreed to relinquish his powerful office. And while our Assembly delegation was absolutely right to demand his exit, his departure as the speaker is not the solution to the problem Mr. Silver represents, regardless of whether he’s guilty of these charges.

Mr. Silver has been a strong force in state government for funding services, programs and protections paid for from the state’s major source of revenue, the progressive income tax. He’s often cited as the liberal protector who resists budget cuts proposed by fiscally conservative governors. He is also seen as a counterweight to the state Senate, usually controlled by Republicans except for a short time recently when a small gang of larcenous Democrats grabbed the reins of power in that house.

But the 35-page criminal complaint against Mr. Silver suggests his agenda was driven by greed not service to the public. What’s worse, his schemes to enrich himself, allegedly by as much as $6 million over the last decade, may not have violated the laws that he helped write, no matter what the charges say.

This gets personal. A couple of dozen colleagues and I lost our newspaper jobs in 2009 in worst of the recession. That was not Mr. Silver’s fault. But the next year his fees for private legal work that the feds now call bogus rose by nearly half a million dollars. At that same time a lot of good people were still out of work or living on meager benefits. We all thought Mr. Silver was on our side, and he’d probably insist he was.

The guy didn’t have to take a vow of poverty. But as the most powerful legislative leader in Albany, he has been leveraging his government position for years in order to make a small fortune on the side. Imagine what that has cost us taxpayers. Think of all the lost state revenue from the inside deals he and possibly others made. All the sweetheart contracts and phony fees. That’s money that never made it to the state treasury where it could have been used to make this a fairer state–maybe a cheaper place to live, too.

The problem isn’t one party. Mr. Silver, a self-dealing Democrat, has Republican counterparts who’ve used high office as a personal piggy bank. Some of this is human nature, but the state’s laws and rules are rigged to encourage bad behavior and hide what lawmakers don’t want us to see.

The ethical lapses of state government can’t be fixed all at once and won’t stay fixed without public vigilance, but there’s one step that could begin to address the problem right away. Let’s demand a provision in the new budget saying that no legislators will be paid after April 1 unless they file sworn publicly available statements verifying the names and addresses of every person, firm or organization that gave them or any account they control anything of value in the previous year. Considering what’s happened, that’s fair, isn’t it?

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