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Blair Horner: 2016 Legislative Session Wraps Up – Gov, Lawmakers Whiff on Ethics Reform

As the sun rose over the Capitol Saturday morning, state lawmakers put the finishing touches on the 2016 legislative session.  Like all other end of sessions, this one wrapped up with a flurry of activity.  Hundreds of bills were approved by both houses in a blur of legislative activities.

Pending the governor’s approval, New York State will have tougher anti-heroin laws, a new requirement to test for lead in schools’ water, alcohol sales at Sunday morning brunches will be allowed, and online daily fantasy sports will be permitted.  Legislative fights to allow ride-sharing companies like Uber, to expand outside New York City and greater access to medical marijuana, were shelved.

What made this legislative session different than any other was that the shock from the corruption convictions of the two legislative leaders earlier this year was still loudly reverberating.  When Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers were elected in November 2014, no one could have foreseen the looming changes.  At that time, Assembly Speaker Silver looked like a lock to become the longest-serving Speaker and Majority Leader Skelos had once again engineered a Republican majority in the state Senate.

Within months, those careers imploded and the issue of corruption moved to the policy front burner in Albany.  No one had seen anything like it – and the calls for stronger ethics laws became widespread.  The most recent polls showed that nearly 100 percent of New Yorkers thought that Albany had a serious ethics problem and wanted action.

Yet, both houses of the Legislature seemed intent on advancing their own proposals – plans that did not match and thus could never become law.  Only one person had the power to forge a deal – Governor Cuomo.

Unfortunately, after the budget passed, the governor remained strangely silent on the need for ethics reforms.  Had he used his bully pulpit in the months of April and May, he may have been able to galvanize public support for a comprehensive ethics package.  The governor has a pretty solid record of cajoling and arm twisting the Legislature when he wants to.  He chose not to.

Instead the governor waited until the last few weeks of session before advancing his reform plans.  He also chose to negotiate with the legislative leaders behind closed doors, a tactic that further deprived reforms of the necessary public support needed to succeed.

At 6:45 p.m. Friday night, the governor announced a deal had been hammered out.  The headline on his press release stated, “Governor Cuomo and Legislative Leaders Announce Agreement on 5 Point Ethics Reform Plan.”

It wasn’t until seven hours later, at 1:45 a.m., that the actual bills were made public.  Public for the handful of lobbyists and political junkies paying close attention early on a Saturday morning, that is.  A quick review made clear that the package was not about ethics reforms.  In fact, very little of the bill had anything to do with the recent corruption scandals or even public officials.

At the heart of the Silver and Skelos scandals were a network of limited liability companies – LLCs for short -- that admitted to funneling $10 million in campaign contributions, with a cool $1 million to the governor himself.  Were there any reforms of LLCs?  Nope, instead the legislation targeted not-for-profits and charities – entities that played no role in either of the former legislative leaders’ scandals.

Was there any campaign finance reform?  Nothing meaningful on that topic either.  Instead, the agreement offered an innovative way to better regulate Independent Expenditure campaigns run by so-called “Super PACs.”  But Super PACs play a relatively minor role in New York’s campaign financing system – a role dwarfed by the LLCs.

And what did the package do about corruption?  The plan advanced the first passage of a constitutional amendment to strip corrupt public officials of their pensions.  In order for this to go into effect, a future legislature would have to approve it as well and then put it to the voters for their thumbs up. The quickest that could go into effect is January 1, 2018.

The plan contains reforms, for that there can be no doubt.  But it wasn’t ethics reform.  On that topic, Albany whiffed – in fact, it never even swung the bat.

Why then did the governor call it ethics reform?  It is really a way for Albany’s political elite to say they did something, when they did virtually nothing at all.  And through the power of repetition, they hope that the public won’t catch on.

Who knows, maybe it will work.  But the member of the public who may matter most is the U.S. Attorney PreetBharara.  He seems intent on digging into Albany’s political system, which Bharara has described as a “culture of corruption.”

If Albany ever cleans up its act it will come as the result of his efforts, unfortunately not from the works of the state’s elected officials.

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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