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As lawmakers begin the rush to a final budget deal, where's ethics reform?

This week is a big one in Albany. Both the state Senate and Assembly will focus on the development of their respective “one House” budget plans. These are the budget proposals advanced by the Democrat majorities that control each House. By mid-month, it is expected that the Senate and Assembly will have passed their respective budget plans in each house and will engage in feverish negotiations with the governor to hammer out a final budget deal.

The final budget will appropriate money for the state’s expenses and also contain policy changes that are tied to those expenditures. Those policy changes are often the most contentious and hardest to finalize since they are not only about spending, but also about permanent changes in law.

Tucked into the governor’s proposed budget was a plan to eliminate the state’s current ethics watchdog – the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) – and replace it with a new entity. Governor Hochul’s promise stems from how she became governor as the result of the resignation of her predecessor. The former governor’s resignation stemmed from allegations of abuse of authority, harassment of staff, and misuse of public resources, which followed a long history of ethical controversies and scandals in New York State.

Governor Hochul has correctly pointed out that the failures of the state ethics watchdog enabled a political culture of unaccountability. The Commission itself has had ethical failings, with confidential votes of its own commissioners leaked back to the former governor in violation of the law.

JCOPE has been a failure since it was first created – a failure that stemmed from its lack of political independence. Governor Hochul is reported to have stated that she wants to “blow up JCOPE.” Editorial pages across the state have long criticized the JCOPE and called for its replacement.

Governor Hochul advanced an ethics reform plan in her budget that – while in need of further strengthening – is an improvement over the disastrous status quo.

Yet, with only a few weeks to go until the final budget agreement, there is little evidence that change is coming. There has been no public push from the governor to advance her own plan, and silence from the legislative branch. Based on conversations with lawmakers, it appears that with all that is going on in the world, Albany’s political elite are hoping that ethics reform will be forgotten.

That must not happen.

Albany’s political culture and its lack of meaningfully independent oversight creates a high risk for corruption – and that’s what New York has gotten from the Buffalo billions bid rigging scandal to the self-dealing of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos. No one defends the current situation, but inaction by the governor and the Legislature to achieve change is an implicit defense of New York’s lousy ethics status quo.

It makes sense that ethics reform be in the budget – after all, replacing one agency with a new one has obvious fiscal impacts. Further, additional funding is needed to strengthen oversight and improve the ethics commission’s IT systems that enable lobbying and financial disclosure reporting, particularly given the recent hack of JCOPE’s web servers.

Real reform historically occurs soon after a scandal, when the public’s attention is focused. If this moment passes without action, the opportunity for meaningful change may be lost.

Over the next week and a half, the public will know if the Legislature believes in meaningful ethics reform. Will the state Senate include an improved version of the Hochul plan in their “one House budget”? Will the Assembly?

Whether there is or not will turn on what individual legislators demand. Failure to include reforms, is a vote for an ethics watchdog agency that doesn’t bark or bite.

At the end of the month, whether ethics reforms are included in the state budget ultimately will hinge on what the governor wants to do. She has the most power over the final budget agreement and it was the governor who pledged to “replace JCOPE with a new, truly independent watchdog with real teeth.”

The public should demand that Governor Hochul keeps her promise of ethics reform. The state budget isn’t done until JCOPE is eliminated and replaced with an independent entity.

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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