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What Happened? Albany Fails, Once Again, to Address Corruption Head-On

Karen DeWitt

What began in January as an ambitious reform package proposed by Gov. Cuomo to address a wave of corruption at the Capitol dwindled to just two proposals by the time the session closed.  Here’s a look at what happened:

Back in January, Governor Cuomo proposed a number of changes to react to a wave of corruption that led to the convictions of the two former leader of the legislature on felony corruption charges.

“Recent acts have undermined the public’s trust in government,” Cuomo said in his State of the State speech on January 13th.  “I have a number of recommendations that will be in the budget, that I believe will help restore the public trust.”

Among them, limiting outside income to levels similar to those in Congress, who can earn just 20 percent of their total salary in other paid endeavors. The abuse of millions of dollars in outside income were key factors in the trails against former Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos, who are now facing prison terms. Cuomo also wanted to close a campaign finance loophole that allows donors to give unlimited amounts of money to candidates by setting up multiple Limited Liability Companies.

But, both of those items dropped out of the budget, and were not part of the end of session agreement either.

Cuomo and lawmakers did begin a process to rescind the pensions of legislators convicted of a felony, a concept they took credit for over a year ago but had never actually passed legislation.  They will require more financial disclosure for lobbyists and political consultants, and regulate independent expenditures allowed under the US Supreme Courts’ Citizens United decision. While the state can regulate Super PACs to ensure they are more independent of candidates, they cannot actually outlaw Super PACs. Independent expenditure money is just a very small fraction of funds raised in statewide campaigns.  

The governor and legislative leaders skipped the traditional end of session news conference and announced the deal in a press release, avoiding any questions about the demise of the proposals to make bigger changes to address corruption.

In end of session remarks delivered to their members, majority party legislative leaders did not mention the reform package, pointing instead to accomplishments made earlier in the session, like a record increase in school aid, raising the minimum wage, and enacting partial paid family leave.

But minority party members were not hesitant to speak up. Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins, speaking at around 3 AM Saturday morning on the Senate floor, says there’s still much more to do.

These reforms today, while a good step, don’t address the scandals that have rocked this building,” Senator Stewart Cousins said.

In the Assembly, Republican Andrew Goodell, from Jamestown, says the new regulations of Super PACS don’t address the heart of what many believe to be the problem in state government-  donors giving money to politicians, and expecting favors in return, which he says is better known as “pay to play” .  

Assemblymember Andy Goodell in 2014

We are completely ignoring all the other corrupting funds that dwarf that money and come from other sources,” Goodell said.

The U.S. Attorney, Preet Bharara, as well as the State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, are investigating Cuomo’s economic development programs over pay to play allegations.

Assemblyman Goodell did offer rare praise for Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie over the passage of the pension forfeiture measure, saying he wished, though, it had a broader scope.

In order for lawmakers to lose their pensions after a felony conviction, the measure will need to be approved by the next consecutively elected legislature. Elections will be held in November, and a new legislature meets in January. The measure to change the constitution could come before voters as early as November of 2017.

Meanwhile, government reform groups, who seemed to have little influence to change the system, now are urging voters to not reward state politicians by reelecting them in November. Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters, spoke in the noisy final days of the session, when it became clear that reform measures would fall short.

“Make sure that some of these people don’t come back,” Bartoletti said. “And maybe that will change culture of corruption in Albany”.

While poll showed that 97 percent of the public this session wanted ethics reform, around the same number, more than 90 percent of legislators, are routinely re elected to their jobs.