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NYS Legislature Returns For Second Half Of Session

New York State Capitol
Karen DeWitt

The legislature returns next Tuesday for the final push in a session that ends in late June. Government reformers say with a burgeoning scandal involving potential violations of campaign limits in Democratic Senate races in 2014, and the scheduled sentencing of the two former leaders of the legislature in early May, it’s time to focus on ethics fixes.

The US Attorney and   Manhattan DA are investigating whether the office of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio knowingly violated campaign contribution laws by funneling donations for some upstate Senate races through county committees, which can accept donations 10 times higher than the limits on an individual Senate candidate.

Meanwhile, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is due to be sentenced May 3rd on a federal corruption conviction, where he illegally gained $4 million dollars in outside income by monetizing the power of his office. Former Senate Leader Skelos and his son Adam, convicted of collecting money from businesses that had matters before state government , will be sentenced on May 12th.

Susan Lerner with Common Cause, says that should be more than enough to spur systematic changes.

“We can’t just have the US Attorney be the cop on the beat when there are no systemic changes,” Lerner said.  “That’s not the way to end the problem.” 

But so far, no ethics reforms have occurred. Governor Cuomo put several proposals in his state budget, but later said he’ll wait until the second half of the session to pursue them. Cuomo says he wants lawmakers to  act on a measure to forfeit the pensions of legislators convicted of felonies, and close a campaign finance loophole that allows Limited Liability Companies to circumvent contribution limits.  He notes all 213 legislative seats are up for election this year.

“My two cents is I would not want to run for election after the legislative scandals we’ve had without having shown the people of the state that I’ve learned the lesson,” Cuomo said in late March.

The governor seems to be backing off from a proposal to severely restrict or ban outside income for state legislators. He has not mentioned it as one of the items he’d like to see finished before the end of June. Senate Republicans reject restricting outside income. Assembly Democrats have offered a partial proposal that the governor has said is inadequate.

Lerner with Common Cause, thinks stricter regulation of transfers of money between campaign accounts should also be on the list of reforms. She calls the current system a “shell game.” She says a major fix is needed, tinkering around the edges of the problems facing Albany would be unacceptable.

“That would be a huge failure,” said Lerner. “It would be a systemic failure of all of our elected officials at the state level.”

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says real change will happen only if Cuomo himself makes a strong push, as the governor did when he successfully won passage of an increased minimum wage and partial paid family leave in the new budget.

“If he decides to make this an effort,” Horner said. “Then there’s a good chance something big could happen.”

Horner predicts that if the governor does not aggressively pursue the reform measures, then “nothing” will happen. 

Other topics before the legislature include expanding New York’s medical marijuana program. Advocates say it’s so limited that almost no doctors have signed up to administer the drug, and making it legal for the ride sharing service Uber and others to operate outside of New York City. 

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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