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One Day Before Cuomo Address, Assembly Republicans Call For Reform

File photo: Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb
Karen DeWitt

One day before New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address, where he is expected to address ethics issues after the criminal convictions of the two legislative leaders, some state legislators are already demanding reforms that would break up the power of the leadership.

Brian Kolb is the leader of the Assembly Republicans, who hold less than one-third of the total 150 seats in the Assembly. But the Assembly Minority Leader says that shouldn’t matter when it comes to putting bills on the floor, or attending budget meetings. He says his members represent 5 million people. Senate Democrats, who are in the minority in that house, have a total of 8 million constituents.  Yet minority leaders are left out of the closed door budget meetings with the governor, known around the Capitol as “three men in a room.” Kolb, a Republican from Canandaigua, says that must change.

“End the three men room now,” Kolb said. “That would be at least one signal that the status quo is going to change.”

Governor Cuomo has often tried to use the three men in a room budget meetings as a symbol of good natured decision making. In his State of the State speech, he’s jokingly displayed a photo shopped image of himself, and the two – then-majority party legislative leaders Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Leader Dean Skelos as ship captains, and, most recently, in sombreros, where the governor called the trio the “three amigos.”

The next day, former Speaker Silver was arrested on multiple corruption charges. By the end of 2015, Silver and former Senate Leader Skelos had been convicted of numerous felonies.

Minority Leader Kolb says that’s all the more reason to open up the decision making process.

“Three amigos, guys in the boats. Really?” Kolb said. “Well, two of those people aren’t here any longer, and there’s a reason why.”

The U.S. Attorney who successfully brought the cases against silver and Skelos, Preet Bharara has said the practice is undemocratic, and has mocked it, in a 2015 speech at New York University, where he compared it to a sitcom.

“Coming up after Happy Days, it’s three men in a room,” Bharara said at the time.

The Senate Minority Democratic Leader, Andrea Stewart Cousins, has also complained about her exclusion from the meetings.

Kolb says the U.S. Attorney, who recently was invited to address state lawmakers in Kentucky, should also come and instruct New York’s legislators about ethics.

Bharara this week said that a probe of Governor Cuomo’s controversial Moreland Act ethics commission has ended, without finding any evidence of criminal acts.

It’s up to Governor Cuomo ultimately, to decide who he lets into the budget meetings. But Assembly Democrats can change their practices to allow minority members more power sharing. Republicans are asking that if a numerical majority of Assemblymembers support a bill, it should be voted on. Kolb says too often, those bills get bottled up in committees controlled by Democrats.

“They don’t even get a fair hearing, a fair debate, a fair vote on the floor of the legislature,” Kolb said. “How is that democracy? “

The current Assembly Speaker, Carl Heastie, has said that bills will not come to the floor for a vote unless a majority of Democrats agree, even if numerically, counting Republican support, there are enough votes for it to pass.

Republicans attempted to bring their reform agenda, which includes term limits and a bill to allow initiative and referendum votes, to the Assembly floor. But they were defeated  along party lines.

Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle said there are “technical” problems with the GOP’s bills, and he says they go against the chamber’s traditional practices.

“Any changes which would lead away from majority rule to an inappropriate, in my view, balance which empowers essentially minority rule would not be appropriate,” Morelle said. “And I think those resolutions do that, and would urge their defeat.”

But there is some hope for the Republicans, that the Assembly may change. Speaker Heastie has convened a working group that will soon recommend changes, and a spokesman says “The Speaker takes very seriously the need for transparency and openness.”


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