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Bringing accountability to New York State government

Ever since former Governor Cuomo resigned in the wake of bombshell investigations that found that his Administration had misled the public about nursing home deaths and that he had harassed his staff, the calls for reform have been growing.

Governor Hochul has said that she wishes to completely overhaul the state’s ethics oversight, reportedly saying that she wants “blow up” the state’s ethics watchdog.

Bravo! But the problems of Albany are not solely the result of a failed ethics enforcement system. The problems go much deeper.

For a decade New York State has plowed billions of dollars into programs that were designed to be “transformational” and to recharge economic development. But the decisions were largely made behind closed doors and no systems were put in place to monitor whether those programs succeeded or failed. In fact, when it came to the efforts to revitalize Buffalo and Syracuse, all that resulted was scandal. The then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s investigation led to the conviction of top Cuomo aides and allies for widespread “pay-to-play” schemes.

The Legislature never followed up to investigate these failures or to comprehensively review the track record of the Cuomo Administration’s multi-billion-dollar initiatives.

They should and they must. There is still time to learn from those scandals.

But it is also the case that new systems need to be put in place so that the public can better monitor state programmatic initiatives without having to hope that lawmakers will take their oversight responsibilities seriously.

Last week, the state Comptroller took one step in that direction. Comptroller DiNapoli unveiled a new program to track where federal pandemic relief money is going. As part of the federal efforts to bolster states’ finances in the wake of the COVID pandemic, New York State has received $21 billion in federal pandemic relief money and has spent $6.1 billion – or one-third –since the end of September.

Having a system in place to monitor what the state is doing with federal aid is, of course, important. The federal aid was designed to bolster programs that were impacted by the pandemic. Taxpayers need to be sure that their federal dollars are being spent appropriately and not diverted to spending in other areas.

And the public needs to know if the money is being spent, and how quickly it’s “going out the door.” Sitting on federal aid only exacerbates the financial pain caused by the pandemic.

The Comptroller’s “tracker” can be expanded to cover all state spending, not just federal pandemic aid. It’s very hard for the public – and rank-and-file lawmakers – to monitor state agencies’ spending. It’s impossible to know how to hold government officials accountable if you don’t have the basic facts.

Even better monitoring of state government spending is only half of the picture – New Yorkers need to know how well funded services perform.

Public monitoring of government service delivery is not some pie-in-the-sky notion. The City of New York has a program, known as the Mayor’s Management Report (MMR), that annually publishes city agencies’ performance.

The report was first produced by the Mayor’s Office in 1977 as a part of the City’s response to the fiscal crisis, to highlight the impacts on performance in that challenging budget environment. The MMR includes both quantitative metrics and qualitative explanations that show how each city agency and related projects are doing and allows for year-over-year comparisons, to show where progress has been made, where more attention is needed, and where there are opportunities for improvement.

There can be no doubt that Governor Hochul’s Administration has its hands full – it needs to hire new staff, deal with the ongoing pandemic, get government up and running, and prepare a budget for next year – all while preparing to run for election.

Yet there also can be no doubt that an overhaul of the state’s ethics oversight is desperately needed. New Yorkers need to have tools to hold all of government accountable for the work that taxpayers fund. Unlike ethics reform – which requires the cooperation of the Legislature – developing a program to hold state government spending accountable is something that the governor can do on her own.

Through her executive powers, the governor can mandate a system that tracks the program used in New York City. She can mandate that and have her agency heads publicly testify to the Administration’s successes or failures in delivering services. If Governor Hochul builds on the work of the Comptroller and the New York City model, she will have made her mark in the short time that she has left in her term. A mark that could make a huge difference in holding government accountable and, hopefully, make it harder for political insiders to game the system to enrich themselves.

After all, a more accountable government is a more ethical one.

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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