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Reformers Say Cuomo's Ethics Proposals Don't Go Far Enough

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
Office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

Governor Andrew Cuomo has outlined his plan for greater transparency of state lawmakers’ outside income, and has made it part of his budget proposal. Good government groups say they wish he had gone farther.

Cuomo proposes that lawmakers who earn more than $1000 a year in outside income must disclose “the nature” of that source of income. Lawyers who earn more than $5000 from a client must reveal the name of that client.  And lawmakers would be banned from earning money from anyone who has an interest in any pending bill or resolution in the legislature. Those who don’t comply with the new rules could be charged with a crime.

The governor’s plan comes as the Assembly Speaker was arrested and charged with trading on his political influence for millions of dollars in payments from two law firms.  He has since resigned his post.  

The governor, speaking in New York City on Monday, says the long time Albany tradition of lawmaker’s accepting questionable outside income has created an “ethics could” and has to end.

“They don’t want to stop, and I understand it,” Cuomo said. “But it has to stop.”

Reform groups say Cuomo could have gone further, though, and actually imposed restrictions on the amount of outside pay that a lawmaker can receive. Blair Horner is with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

“We don’t think it’s a right to know issue, it’s a serving two masters issue,” Blair said. “Our argument is that you should only serve one master, and that’s the public itself.”

NYPIRG recommends New York enact the model used by Congress, which limits outside income to 15% of a lawmaker’s salary.

Congress enacted those limits in the mid 1970s, after the scandal that led to the resignation of President Nixon. Horner says the current climate, with the indictment of the former Assembly speaker and ongoing federal probes, is Albany’s own “Watergate moment.”

Susan Lerner, with Common Cause, says her group also wishes the governor’s proposal was stronger.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Lerner. “It certainly is not what we hoped the ultimate solution would be.”

Cuomo says he’ll hold up the budget if lawmakers don’t agree to the new disclosure requirements and other reforms. Horner, with NYPIRG, says the governor and legislature should be able to both finish the budget by the required April 1st deadline, and reform ethics practices.

“They should get the budget done on time, they should  do ethics reform, end of story,” Horner said. “There’s no reason why one should have to hang up the other.”

The governor’s proposals also include an automatic forfeiture of the pensions of lawmakers if they are convicted of a crime, and better documenting of daily expenses to cut down on abuse. 

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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