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Blair Horner: The Next Phase Of The Ethics "Debate"

Lawmakers return to Albany this week to tackle an agreement on the upcoming budget.  The state’s fiscal year starts on April 1st.  As part of his budget, and in reaction to the political crime wave that has swept the Capitol, Governor Cuomo included ethics reforms.

How do we know there is a political crime wave?  Crime-fighting U.S. Attorney PreetBharara recently spoke in Albany and here are some of the observations he made:

·         He hammered away at the complacency and implicit collaboration of other lawmakers, whom he called “enablers,” in the “rancid culture” of Albany.

·         “What’s been going on in New York State government lately is simultaneously heartbreaking, head-scratching and almost comic,” he said.

·         At an event organized by the New York State Conference of Mayors, Bharara said that the job of local officials is made harder because of the “culture of corruption” in state government.

·         Bharara described New York State politics as a “rancid, show me the money culture.” He added, “The standard to maintain one of the most powerful public positions in our state [must be] something higher than ‘I have not yet been convicted of a crime.”

Since Bharara’s statements in Albany earlier this month, shockingly little has been said by the governor or the majority parties’ legislative leaders.  While the minority leaders in both houses have argued for reforms, the majorities’ leaders have been quiet.

No hearings have been called, no news conferences by the governor or the majority party legislative leaders have been held to urge reforms, and it’s been eerily quiet.  It appears that they are hoping it all blows over and that Albany’s political status quo stays largely intact.

If history is any guide, Albany’s “muscle memory” will be to discuss ideas over the next few weeks and then secretly hammer out an ethics deal.  That deal will then be heralded as “historic” with “unprecedented new reforms” that will govern the state’s ethics.

Over time, it will then become clear that loopholes in those “reforms” will have little positive impact and that the status quo will return.

We’ve seen this “movie” before, virtually every year, Governor Cuomo and the legislative leaders have enacted ethics reforms – but little changes.  Why?  Because secret, last minute deals are designed more to provide political cover than real change.

It’s time to change the ending to that “movie.”  It’s time for meaningful actions, changes that are hammered out in public, not behind closed doors.

There is a reason that 90 percent of New Yorkers think that corruption is a big problem in state government.  Yet, New York’s political class has been intent on appearing to act, while really doing little to change the political culture.

When the U.S. Attorney spoke, he said "This moment in history calls for something more than just talk.  There's been a lot of talk." 

Unfortunately, there has been little more than talk.  And left to its own devices, Albany’s political establishment will move toward a behind-closed-doors deal, one in which a press release can be written, but one which does little.

New Yorkers must demand more: hearings, public debate, negotiations in the open.  Anything less will just be an unsatisfying ethics reform “rerun.”

The U.S. Attorney sent a warning to New Yorkers as well as to its establishment when he said “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”

We can’t let that happen.  Only an open, honest debate around reforms that limit outside income and create independent ethics enforcement can end the scandals that have plagued Albany.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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