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Cuomo Casts Doubt On Ethics Reforms In Budget

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


  Governor Cuomo concedes that ethics reform is unlikely to be a part of the New York State budget, despite the conviction of the two legislative leaders on major corruption charges. Cuomo blames the legislature for lack of will to enact changes.

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos are facing potentially lengthy prison terms when they are sentenced on the same day, April 13th. Both were convicted on multiple corruption charges that in part focused on their abuse of income they earned outside of their state elected positions. Governor Cuomo in response proposed strictly limiting lawmakers’ earning of outside income, to just 15% of their annual $79,500 a year salaries, similar to current rules in Congress. Cuomo also in this State of the State message once again called for the closing of a campaign donation loophole that allows groups and individuals to sue Limited Liability Companies to skirt donation limits. But the Governor, with two weeks to go before the budget deadline, now concedes that the Senate and Assembly will not likely adopt his proposals in the state spending plan.

“It’s clear to me that they don’t intend to pass a robust ethics package in the budget,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo has been criticized by government reform groups for not pushing hard enough for ethics reform. He spoke after announcing a high tech job development in Rochester. The Governor has also been holding rallies across the state to raise the minimum wage. Cuomo has made a series of speeches on that issue and the need for paid family leave, but he does not mention anti corruption measures in his talks. Speaking after a minimum wage rally in Albany Cuomo says he will continue to press lawmakers to pass ethics reform before the session ends in June.

“I don’t think  anyone in good faith could leave Albany until we get things done, like at least the pension forfeiture bill,” said Cuomo.

A 2015 agreement to amend the state’s constitution to take away the pensions of lawmakers convicted of felonies passed in the Senate, but still has not been approved in the Assembly. But Democrats have said they have until the end of this year to do it, since it requires two consecutively elected state legislatures in order for the proposed change to go on a November ballot. Cuomo is not insisting on approving limits to outside income, perhaps because Republicans in the State Senate have flatly rejected any restrictions. They say the legislature is meant to be part time and lawmakers should have outside employment. The Assembly and Senate released their budget proposals but did not include ethics reform. Assembly Democrats voted on a separate set of bills that would limit lawmakers’ outside income to $70,000  a year, an amount Cuomo has said is unacceptable.

“It’s too high,” Cuomo said.

The Senate has previously endorsed term limits for legislative leaders. Senate Leader John Flanagan and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie defended their positions, following  a budget conference meeting. Heastie says the Assembly has already taken a number of steps, including tightening up expense reporting and greater transparency of outside income.

“I would hope that people see we made some progress,” Heastie said. “But there’s still work to do.”

Senator Flanagan agrees with Speaker Heastie, and says that reforms have been enacted over the past few years. He says with the budget deadline now near, lawmakers are focusing on other issues.

“We’re overly concerned about things like funding for education, highways roads and bridges,” said Flanagan who adds it’s more “prudent” to address ethics reforms after the budget is finished.

Blair Horner, with the reform group the New York Public Interest Research Group, says he’s disappointed that the budget will now likely not include ethics changes. And he says the governor should also be demanding that the legislature adopt his proposed limits on outside income.

“The governor moving the goal post doesn’t make it any easier for meaningful, comprehensive reform to pass,” said Horner.

Horner says the governor has less leverage to get his agenda passed once the budget deadline is over. 

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.