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Senate Democrats: More Reasons Than Ever To Adopt Reform Bills

Karen DeWitt

New York Democrats pressing for bills to reform the state’s campaign finance system, say the US Attorney’s investigations into a panel controlled by Governor Andrew Cuomo might help spur action on their measures.

Democrats in the Senate introduced a package of bills that they say would lessen special interest influences in politics and curb some ongoing abuses. In addition to establishing a publicly financed, matching small donor funding system for elections, the bills would also cut off pensions for lawmakers convicted of a felony, and prevent legislators accused of crimes from using their campaign war chests to pay for their legal defense.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says the measures are more important than ever in the midst of an ongoing spate of public corruption.

“Unfortunately, more elected officials have been accused of wrongdoing,” said Stewart-Cousins. “And more reports have come out detailing inappropriate practices and violations of the public trust.”  

The proposals come as former Senate Leader Joe Bruno, a Republican, is on trial for a second time on corruption charges, and two former Senate Democratic leaders face charges of embezzlement and bribery. A third Democrat, former Senate President Pedro Espada, is already in prison.

But the Democrats are the minority faction in the Senate. The chamber is ruled by a coalition of GOP Senators and five breakaway Democrats, known as the Independent Democratic conference. The IDC leader Senator Jeff Klein has said passing public campaign finance reform before session ends is a priority for him as well.

“Certainly we need to have a public matching system,” Klein said recently. “We need to do more than we did in the budget.”

Klein and Cuomo had sought public finance and other reforms, as part of a budget deal, but in the end settled for a more limited ethics package that would strengthen the regulation of campaign violations and enact stiffer anti-bribery laws. In exchange, Cuomo agreed to disband a Moreland Act Commission, that he’d appointed, that was probing accusations of corruption in the legislature.

Senator Liz Krueger, a sponsor of some of the Senate Democrat’s bills, says the budget deal was far from adequate.

“It was an exercise in snipe hunting,” said Krueger, who said the other lawmakers were only “pretending” that they were enacting reforms.

The Senate Democrats proposals also come as the New York Times reports that US Attorney Preet Bharara has opened a grand jury probe into whether the Cuomo Administration interfered with Moreland Commission investigations, which might have reflected badly on the governor or his major campaign donors.

Stewart-Cousins was asked for her reaction to the news of the grand jury probe by Bharara.

“He’s doing what he needs to do,” Stewart-Cousins said.  

Cuomo formed the Moreland Commission after the 2013 session, when the Senate Leadership Coalition of Republicans and Independent Democrats failed to agree to public campaign financing and other reforms.

Stewart-Cousins says that Cuomo would never have had to create the Moreland Commission in the first place if Senate Democrats had been in power, because they would have approved the reform legislation last year.

Republicans in the Senate shot back, saying that when the Democrats controlled the chamber for two years, they did not pass any of the reform measures that they are now proposing.

Scott Rief, spokesman for Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos, said , in a statement, "Over the last few years, we've enacted historic ethics reforms that provide greater transparency and more disclosure than has ever before been required, and we're always looking to strengthen existing laws. Instead of passing ethics or campaign finance reforms when they were in the majority, Democrats raised taxes by $14 billion to fuel their expensive and out-of-control patronage mill."

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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