June is a big month in Albany. After Memorial Day, lawmakers have just 13 days in their schedule to wrap up the legislative session. In June of last year, the state Senate and the state Assembly each approved about 2/3 of all bills passed during the entire 6-month session. When it comes to moving on legislation, June is the biggest month.
While there is a large number of bills moving this June, the big question will be whether the legislation under consideration actually addresses the important issues facing the state. One of those important issues is whether the governor and state lawmakers will act to curtail the incredible corruption that has plagued New York.
In just the past few months, a top aide to the governor was convicted of corruption, the former Speaker of the Assembly was convicted of corruption, a former state Senator pleaded guilty to illegal use of campaign funds, a member of the Assembly resigned after corruption charges were filed against her, and top public officials on Long Island are in court right now waiting to see if they will be convicted of federal corruption charges.
And over the past decade, dozens of public officials have had to resign or were convicted on charges related to ethical misconduct.
Yet despite this awful track record, the governor and the legislative leaders don’t appear interested in agreeing to needed anti-corruption reforms.
Also scheduled for mid-June is the beginning of the trial examining allegations of widespread corruption in the state’s so-called “Buffalo Billion” program. That economic development project was heralded by the governor as a massive $750 million stimulus to jump start the Western New York economy.
Whether the program’s stimulus succeeded is still unclear, but what is clear is that federal prosecutors believe that a favored company had a multi-million-dollar contract awarded to it because it hired allies of the governor. The company has also been one of the biggest campaign contributors to the governor. The former members of the Administration who have been charged have maintained their innocence and there have been no charges involving the governor himself.
Whatever the outcome, however, the case presented by federal prosecutors will further fuel the perception that New York’s governments are too susceptible to corruption.
Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers must act to counter both the perception and the reality of a campaign financing system and an economic development approach that are all too easily “gamed” for the benefit of individuals and companies that are cozy with elected officials and that operate far too often at the expense of the public.
Given the sweeping scale of the corruption convictions in New York, there is no “silver bullet” response. Instead a comprehensive package is needed to reduce the risk of corruption. Reformers have pushed for measures they call the “Restore Public Trust”:
- Clean Contracting. Pass legislation to strengthen the state Comptroller’s independent oversight of government contracting and boost public disclosure of those subsidies. The Senate has approved bills to achieve these goals. The Assembly should too.
- Ban “Pay to Play.” Enact strict “pay to play” restrictions on state vendors. Evidence at the recent trial showed that state vendors clearly want to influence state contract awards by giving campaign contributions to elected leaders.
- Close the “LLC Loophole.” Ban unlimited campaign contributions via Limited Liability Companies. LLCs have been at the heart of some of Albany’s largest scandals. The Assembly has acted on this bill, the Senate should too.
- Establish an Independent Ethics Watchdog. Replace the state’s current ethics watchdogs, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Legislative Ethics Commission, with an independent one, an entity free from political allegiance to those it is supposed to monitor. And one with authority over both the executive and legislature, lobbying and campaign financing.
- Real Budget Transparency. Make lump-sum budget appropriations and the resulting expenditures fully transparent.
- Strict Limits on Outside Income. Set real limits on the outside income for legislators and the executive branch. Moonlighting by top legislative leaders and top members of the executive branch has triggered indictments by the federal prosecutors.
The baker’s dozen of legislative work days after Memorial Day will tell New Yorkers whether the governor and state legislators are serious about combatting corruption.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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