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Blair Horner: The Governor Proposes Ethics Reforms As Part Of His Budget

For the longest time, the state Capitol has been rocked by scandals.  In recent years, those scandals have mushroomed: Both leaders of the Legislature have been convicted of corruption and face time in prison, and close aides and associates of the governor have been charged.

Not surprisingly, each year Governor Cuomo has touted reforms that are supposed to address the ethical misconduct that has plagued Albany.  Unfortunately, the reforms that have been approved, while heralded as historic, have done little to curb corruption.  Typically the measures are weak; often riddled with loopholes, and in some cases appear deliberately designed to sound good, but fail.

In this year’s budget, the governor once again advances a package that he argues will deal with ethical problems in both state and local governments.  And while his rhetoric sounds good, a closer look reveals his plans are problematic.

Broadly speaking, the governor’s plans tackle four different areas: ethics, openness, campaign finance and voting rights.

The governor offers a number of measures that could help improve New York’s dismal voter participation record.  For decades, New York has ranked at or near the bottom of the nation’s barrel in this area.  Despite New York’s professed “progressivism,” when it comes to voting participation, the state is as bad as the nation gets.

Some of the blame lies with the state’s notoriously rigged political process, which leaves voters with little in the way of choices.  But that alone does not explain New York’s record.  New York has created significant obstacles to citizens registering to vote and does too little to support elections administration.

In the governor’s budget, he advances some “best practices,” most notably proposing that the state allow new voters the opportunity to register and vote on election day.  This is a common feature in many states with the highest voter participation rates.  It makes sense that as election day draws close, would-be voters are most likely to get engaged.  New York’s current voter registration deadline, for example, requires registration typically before Presidential debates occur – or right before voters fully engage.

The governor’s campaign financing proposals contain important reforms: a voluntary system of public financing, lower campaign contribution limits, and more disclosures about campaign contributors.  New to his package is a plan to ban campaign contributions from those who are seeking or receiving government contracts. 

This last proposal is perhaps in reaction to the U.S. Attorney’s prosecution of a vast “pay-to-play” scheme, in which it is alleged top Cuomo Administration officials allegedly rigged government contracts to be steered to those who made campaign contributions to the governor’s reelection campaign.

The Cuomo Administration has been severely criticized for its across-the-board opacity.  In terms of openness, the governor is proposing changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).  FOIL is the law that is supposed to allow the public access to government data – usually collected with taxpayers’ dollars. 

However, the governor’s proposal does virtually nothing to enhance public access to the records of government agencies.  And government that operates in a secretive and publicly unaccountable manner sets itself up for scandal, among other problems.

And that’s what we’ve seen: scandals at the highest level have been alleged against members of the Administration.

Yet it is in the area of corruption-fighting ethics reforms that the Cuomo plans are most wanting.  The governor advances measures to require limits on the outside income of lawmakers, which is a good idea.  But the scandals alleged in the executive branch under the governor’s watch had nothing to do with caps on income. 

Recognizing the need to address this area, the governor offers the creation of new watchdogs, but they are all accountable to the governor.  Instead, the governor should have proposed measures to strengthen the powers of existing watchdogs outside of his direct control.

In particular, when it comes to monitoring government spending, the state constitution establishes a separately-elected Comptroller to monitor the books.  Not someone appointed or accountable to the governor – who directs the state agencies – but someone who is supposed to be directly accountable to the public.  Over recent years, the governor and the Legislature have approved measures that  cut back the power of the Comptroller to monitor government contracts.   Instead they should be strengthening them.

When it comes to ethics, it’s long past time for New York to have a truly independent ethics watchdog.  Not a watchdog with appointees directly chosen by the governor and the legislative leaders.  Not one in which its top staffers are chosen from the staff of the governor.

An entity independent of the political elite that it is supposed to monitor.

Until New York establishes a system of independent ethics and contracting oversight, the nightmare of public corruption scandals will not end.  Hopefully, the final budget will make that happen.

Blair Horner is executive 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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