State ethics commissioners worked on fine-tuning their legislative agenda for 2024, setting sights on how lawmakers can change policy to best regulate lobbying and ethical behavior of New York elected officials when they return to Albany in January.

Members of the state Commission on Ethics & Lobbying in Government on Wednesday held a public roundtable in New York City, and discussed plans to press the Legislature to better regulate ethics training required for lobbyists, including a daily late fee for lobbyists and clients who fail to complete it in the required timeframe.

They hope the fee would raise the current 80% compliance rate.

"It's similar language to what's already in there for late filing fees," said Carol Quinn, COELIG's director of lobbying. "We would have a late fee schedule up to a certain amount per day for late trainings. ... This would hopefully get everyone compliant."

Wednesday's roundtable was held as a follow-up to a public hearing the group held in March required by law, and did not have to be publicized. 

Advocates said the optional public ethics discussion has never been done in the state, which jumpstarted dialogue about if and when lawmakers should pursue a constitutional amendment related to state ethics enforcement.

"I know I speak for my fellow commissioners in saying that we look forward to continuing to engage with you and many others to succeed in restoring the public's trust in state government," said Leonard Austin, COELIG's vice chair. 

Commissioners and stakeholders also say state law must be changed to codify sexual harassment as a violation of the ethics code. 

Erica Vladimer, co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, says the state Legislative Ethics Commission should be abolished, especially from imposing fines for sexual harassment violations.

"When the recommendation from COELIG is kicked over to the LEC, and it is most often colleagues who have to decide to hold their colleagues accountable, it won't happen, and then justice is gone," Vladimer said during Wednesday's roundtable. "So abolishing the LEC and having COELIG create more accountability and being able to impose fines and penalties directly on legislators that you find have violated the ethics rules under Public Officers Law Section 74, you also create a much greater avenue of justice for victims."

Vladimer added if the change is made, state human rights law should be referenced in state Public Officers Law, so a person who violates one, violates both.

Others pushed for a constitutional amendment to abolish the Legislative Ethics Commission, arguing it lacks legislative independence. 

The constitutionality of the state Commission on Ethics & Lobbying in Government created under Gov. Kathy Hochul is under question after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo sued the ethics enforcement entity earlier this year. Cuomo filed suit to stop a probe that could result in him losing $5.1 million profit to write his pandemic memoir, which the state's last ethics watchdog that he created approved.

That litigation remains ongoing. Further discussion about a constitutional amendment to change the structure of the ethics enforcement agency is unlikely until after the lawsuit concludes. 

Reinvent Albany was one of several good-government groups at the table, pushing to improve lobbying disclosures and make it public who lobbies for and against legislation.

Rachael Fauss, Reinvent Albany's senior policy advisor, says they group will also push for financial disclosure statements of more public officials online.

"Getting the Ethics Commission to support changing the law is actually a really important step in making sure the Legislature knows the commission wants to do it," Fauss said.

In the months since its public hearing in March, the commission has put millions of lobbying data points online, made it easier for lobbyists and corporations to terminate their registration and holding trainings for lobbyists on how to file reports.

Fauss agrees the ongoing litigation will determine the need to change the structure of the commission in the state Constitution, but that shouldn't deter other progress.

"I think at the same time, it makes sense to see what can be done by statute first, because that's the easiest thing to change," she said.