Blair Horner: The Opening Of The 2014 Session
This week, Governor Cuomo unveils his plans for the 2014 legislative session. The State of the State allows the executive a unique opportunity to command public attention and to mobilize support for his proposals. Typically, a State of the State address in the first year of any Administration focuses on the need for changes and reforms. As the governor over time comes to represent the status quo, his or her rhetoric changes and the State of the State becomes a vehicle to extol the achievements of the Administration and to build on the image the governor is trying to project.
Governor Cuomo's State of the State addresses has been no different.
His first State of the State address devoted considerable time to his plans to reform New York: proposals to reform campaign finance and ethics laws as well as offering plans to make government more open and accountable. The governor proposed that government itself would be reformed and restructured. He called for the creation of a reorganization commission with the authority to consolidate and update the structure of state government -- starting with the merger of the insurance and banking regulatory agencies. He argued that the structure of New York's government has remained essentially unchanged since the early 1900s.
And while he was successful in merging the Insurance and Banking agencies into one agency, the governor has increasingly created new commissions and tasks forces to drive his agenda -- groups to reform Medicaid, reduce local government mandates, and investigate corruption are among the most notable examples.
The amount of time that the governor discusses reforms to change Albany's politics has reduced over the three years of his State of the State addresses. What was once a central part of his message was reduced to a couple of paragraphs in his 2013 address.
Yet, Albany’s problems have remained, despite what the governor discusses in his messages. His agreements on ethics and redistricting reforms have been, at best, insignificant -- at worst opportunities that were squandered.
Lawmakers are still getting indicted, are still involved in scandals. Making decisions in secret is still Albany's preferred method of policymaking. Well-connected lobbyists and big money donors still reign supreme over the public interest.
In short, Albany -- while perhaps more efficient -- hasn't changed much.
But 2014 should be different. The findings of the Moreland Commission Investigating Public Corruption's report found serious ethical problems plaguing Albany. And the conga dance of lawmakers facing investigations continues -- with over 30 either convicted, indicted or under investigation over the past few years.
Since the governor, the attorney general, the comptroller and all state legislators face the voters this November, it is reasonable that they would want to offer fresh evidence of changes for the better in Albany. If history is any guide however, decisionmakers will look to enact changes that do little to fundamentally change Albany, but which give them the maximum political cover from voter wrath.
The governor's State of the State message offers voters the first real evidence that Albany’s political elite is looking to fundamentally change. For three years, the governor called for campaign finance changes and it is likely he will again. But does he frame the issue as a litmus test to measure success for the session, or does he describe it as his wish for reform?
But what about changes to the state's ethics laws? The state's chief ethics watchdogs -- the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Legislative Ethics Commission -- are both viewed as agencies that were designed by Albany's political leadership to be beholden to them, not independent entities that enforce the law without fear or favor. What will the governor propose as an overhaul in this area?
Will the governor admit that the redistricting deal he cut two years ago was also fundamentally flawed and changes are needed? Will he offer a new vision of open government -- one in which the public can better monitor its own public servants? Secrecy empowers only Albany’s lobbyists, not the public.
With both the State of the State message and the introduction of the governor's proposed budget in a couple of weeks, voters will get the first tangible evidence of whether Albany is really trying to change its ways, or if changes are more rhetorical than real.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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