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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: The Governor Takes His Eye Off The Ball

Governor Cuomo recently unveiled a new effort to rein in independent expenditure “Super PACs.”  Independent expenditure “Super PACs” have run amok nationwide in the wake of the now infamous US Supreme Court case, Citizens United.  These Super PACs allow individuals and interest groups to spend as much as they want to help elect candidates or political parties, as long as they do not coordinate with the candidate or the political party. 

Unfortunately, Super PACs have figured out how to coordinate with their candidates – they hire former staffers of the candidate, they hire family members, they hire the same public relations consultants – yet proclaim their independence.  They are able to do so due to the lack of regulations that sets real limits on coordination.

The governor’s innovative approach defines independence and coordination in ways that try to ensure that these Super PACs behave independently.  And while the governor’s proposal could help stimulate a national debate over how best to tackle the political chaos from the activities of Super PACs, his plan ignores the most basic problem facing politics in New York – corruption by state public officials.

What is driving New Yorkers crazy about Albany is the years-long unending political crime wave that has gripped the Capitol.  And what has made matters worse is the apparent disinterest of state elected officials to develop new ways to deter political crimes.  Instead of dealing with corruption, the state’s governmental elite seems satisfied with proposals that create a “political shield” – ways to say they are doing something, but really doing nothing at all.

The most obvious example, and the issue Albany is most likely to tackle, is the proposal to allow the courts to yank away the pensions of corrupt elected officials.  Under New York State law, officials elected after 2011 can already have their pensions taken away if they are convicted of a corrupt act.  However, if an individual was elected prior to 2011, they can keep their pension even if they are convicted of corruption.  The most notable recent corrupt elected officials – the former Assembly Speaker and former Senate Majority Leader – have filed for their pensions even though they are facing time in prison.

There is little debate over the policy, but there is still debate over the details.  Yet, other than punishing the corrupt pol, what does this policy do?  Will it deter future corrupt pols?  I doubt it; after all if they are not deterred by prison time, why would they be deterred by loss of a pension?

Unfortunately, the pension-stripping measure will be trumpeted as a big reform when lawmakers wrap up the legislative session this week.  The governor’s plan to better regulate Super PACs is laudable, but it does little to deal with the corruption that plagues New York.  Super PACs play a minor role in New York: since the state’s campaign financing system allows huge contributions anyway, why bother creating one?

In this last week of session, the governor has taken his eye off the ball.  However innovative his plan, to advance it during the last weeks of the legislative session sucks up valuable advocacy time when he should be pushing lawmakers to act on proposals that will really address the corruption US Attorney PreetBharara says he sees “everywhere” he looks.

The governor lost valuable advocacy time when he did virtually nothing to galvanize widespread public support for reform in the months of April and May.  For those two months, the governor did little to prepare for the debate in June.  Now, at the last minute, the governor is pushing for a reform that will have no significant impact of the problems that Albany faces.  And he’s failed to rally the public to support his proposals.

The governor should have used his time to push for proposals that would have curtailed outside jobs for public officials.  The scandals that ensnared the former heads of the Assembly and Senate were related to the work they were doing outside of their legislative jobs.  They were using their public offices for private gain.  New York should follow the Congressional model and reduce that temptation by limiting outside income.

The governor should also have been pushing for greater accountability and openness in state spending.  The former Speaker used a state slush fund to enrich himself.  The governor’s closest aide, and the Administration itself, are now under scrutiny by the US Attorney for how it allegedly doles out economic development opportunities to politically-connected campaign donors.

Lastly, the governor should have been pushing for the creation of an independent ethics watchdog.  The current watchdogs are captive agencies under the thumbs of the state’s political powers.  New Yorkers deserve independent ethics cops walking the beat.

But instead of addressing those reforms, the governor and the legislative leaders are engaged in ways to frame the solutions to Albany’s corruption that are disconnected to the problems and therefore will have little, or no, impact.  Voters should understand the game that is being played and hold the governor and state lawmakers to account if they fail to provide real solutions to the state’s unprecedented scandals.

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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