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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Ethics Reforms Are Proposed, Again

Corruption and ethics continue to dominate the headlines out of Albany.  Last week, the verbal sparring over ethics reforms spilled into public view.

Early in the week, Governor Cuomo’s appointees on a panel reviewing pay levels for the legislative and executive branches killed a proposal to hike salaries – after the governor announced his opposition.  The governor’s stated opposition to a pay increase stemmed from the legislature’s reluctance to approve a Congressional-style limit on outside income for lawmakers.

Later in the week, the governor announced another package of ethics reforms that he promised would end the unrelenting scandals that have plagued state government. 

In his statement, the governor said

“I believe this public trust and integrity issue must be addressed – directly and forthrightly. I don’t believe in denial as a life strategy. I believe you must face your problems, no matter how unpleasant, and do your best to resolve them. It is time for action, not words.”

Of course, no statement can explain every detail and when it comes to ethics and government accountability, details matter. For example, the governor's proposal to cut off campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts is a welcome addition to the debate, but the details on how that would be accomplished really do matter.

Would a ban on contributions from those who receive government contracts apply to corporate affiliates, to unions, to family members?  Would the prohibition extend to all political committees – including local ones, not just those controlled by elected officials?

We don’t know the answers yet, but how the governor packages that proposal could go a long way toward whether it solves a real problem, or just creates the illusion of a solution.

Another example is the governor’s proposal to create a new position within his office -- a Chief Procurement Officer.  The Chief Procurement Officer would, according to the governor’s statement, “be charged with reviewing all state contracts, with an eye towards eliminating any wrongdoing, conflicts of interest or collusion.”

There is good reason for better oversight of government contracts:  The U.S. Attorney has alleged serious instances of corruption involving the award of large economic development contracts from state government.  Yet, the state constitution already establishes someone to monitor the New York’s finances -- the independently elected State Comptroller. 

In recent years, however, the governor and the legislature have taken numerous actions to weaken the oversight provided by the Comptroller.

Instead, the governor and legislative leaders should be looking to enhance checks and balances and for ways to restore and strengthen the Comptroller's powers to independently oversee government spending.

The governor’s ethics statement observed, “That fear of real problems, combined with mistrust about the government, is the toxic combination that this nation now faces.

Sadly, New York is no exception. Our state has suffered a few long years of seemingly endless scandals at all levels.”

And as the governor said “It is time for action, not words.”

Sadly, for far too long, Albany has been all talk and very little action.

The governor’s statement was another in series of public promises, New Yorkers can only hope that this time actions will follow words.

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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