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Blair Horner: Another Albany Pol Bites The Dust

Some of the big news in state politics last week was the sentencing of former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.  Skelos, like the former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, was convicted of corruption.  Skelos was sentenced for five years in prison for his activities in shaking down businesses for often no-show jobs for his son.  A couple of weeks earlier, Silver received 12 years for his corrupt schemes that enriched him by millions of dollars.

Both cases had their differences, but both had a consistent theme – both men secretly and nakedly used the power of their public positions to enrich themselves or their family.

The swirling controversies around current or former members of the Cuomo Administration also appear to have the same common thread; in those cases, a former official and a current lobbyist with long ties to the governor, allegedly gamed the system to enrich themselves.

These scandals and controversies are not the only examples of this type of corruption, nor is New York the only government to have experienced them.  But the scale of the size of New York government, with its $150 billion annual budget, the fact that it operates at the highest levels in incredible secrecy, the number of global companies based in the state, and the lack of independent state-based enforcement, all raise the risk of corruption.

At the heart of the problem – that public officials use their positions to enrich themselves personally – is the perception that state government watchdog agencies are not independently and aggressively monitoring ethics laws. 

In other controversies – most notably the allegations swirling around the New York City Mayor as well as elements of the reports about actions of former and current members of the Cuomo Administration – there is a second type of misbehavior, using governmental largesse to benefit campaign contributors and other well-connected interest groups.  This transactional means of operating is known as “pay to play.”

These complaints have consistently been raised about deal-making in New York, and other parts of the country.  As in the case of personal enrichment by public officials, there is a belief that participating in a “pay-to-play” political culture is necessary and, in fact, required, of those seeking governmental favors.  Albany’s secrecy fosters such a culture.

Recent polls have found that virtually all New Yorkers are fed up with what they have seen from their state’s government.  Yet, there is an increasing sense that Albany will wrap up its legislative session next month and have achieved little, or nothing, to respond to the outcomes of recent investigations.  With just 15 scheduled legislative session days left, that’s looking increasingly likely.

Whether that turns out to be the case will be determined by what the governor does.  In Albany’s legislative partisan split – Republicans control the Senate and Democrats control the Assembly – it is the governor who must force a debate and a consensus on legislative action.  It is the governor, after all, who commands the largest bully pulpit, it is the governor that is the most powerful political figure, and it is the governor who prides himself on getting things done.  Chief executives after all are where the buck stops, whether it’s a mayor, governor or president.

In this year’s budget, New Yorkers saw that power and its skillful deployment in Governor Cuomo’s efforts to raise the minimum wage and to enact paid family leave.  In both cases, there was considerable opposition – both within Albany and by outside business groups.  Yet, the governor kept at it and organized public support into legislative victories.

Unlike the fights over the minimum wage and paid family leave, when it comes to ethics the governor would have a huge advantage – near unanimous public support for reforms.  But the governor has done little to focus public attention on the solutions that are needed.  Thus, the groundwork has not been laid to galvanize public support on key solutions.

And those real solutions must be based on opening up state government, reducing the temptations to allow public officials to enrich themselves, curbing Albany’s pay-to-play political culture, and – most importantly – overhauling ethics enforcement agencies to ensure independence and competence.  New Yorkers cannot assume that PreetBharara, the U.S. Attorney who has done most of the work to bring corrupt public officials to justice, will be around forever.

At the end of the legislative session, whether real reforms are approved or not will rest almost entirely on what Governor Cuomo chooses to do.  And while voters should hold their legislators accountable for Albany’s failures, they should expect that this governor does what he was elected to do – solve problems.  And Albany has a big problem right now, we’ll soon see if the governor is up to solving it.

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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