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NY Legislative Session Beset By Corruption Likely To End With No Reforms

Mike Groll

Despite the arrest of the leaders of both houses of the legislature on corruption charges, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York state lawmakers said they have no plans to pass any additional ethics reforms this session.

It appears likely that a legislative session in which the Speaker of the Assembly and President of the Senate were both indicted will not end with any significant reforms. 

That has not stopped the state's Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, from traveling the state to push his own set of reform proposals. Schneiderman has made appearances in New York City and on Long Island. He was in Rochester and Buffalo on Monday.

Credit (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Schneiderman said he decided to go on his crusade when he heard that Cuomo and the new legislative leaders, after a meeting in mid-May, said that ethics reform was not a priority for them in the waning days of the session. 

"The need for reform right now is shockingly clear," Schneiderman said. 

Schneiderman, who has said he's concluded that reforms that merely "tinker" around the edges don't address the real corruption problems, wants to ban all outside income for legislators. Both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos are charged with trying to monetize their positons to enrich themselves and their relatives. 

Schneiderman said lawmakers need a pay raise in exchange. They have not seen their salaries increase since 1998. In addition, Schneiderman wants to limit the influence of large donors on campaigns by enacting public campaign financing and limiting contributions.

He would also extend Senate and Assembly terms to four years, to break the endless two year cycles of campaigning and money collecting by politicians. 

Schneiderman, who began his campaign for reform May 27, said there's enough time in a legislative session that ends June 17 to make all of the changes. 

"The legislature has all of the time and the information they need," he said.

Schneiderman said there's no rule that said lawmakers have to adjourn the third week of June. In the past, lawmakers have remained until August, or met monthly throughout the year.

Cuomo, who in the past has advocated for some of the reforms that Schneiderman is seeking, said he thinks it's too late though, to make major ethics changes. Cuomo made the argument that the ongoing corruption scandals are hampering efforts for ethics reform. 

"It is late in the day for anything," Cuomo said. "You can't get, realistically, a complicated issue done, with this Senate and this Assembly in the midst of everything is going on, in a matter of days." 

Cuomo said he and lawmakers already enacted what he considers to be "major" ethics reforms in the state budget. They agreed to end pensions for convicted legislators, though the assembly has since revised the measure and it has not been approved by both houses. They also agreed to better document lawmakers' reimbursements for expenses, and for better disclosure of outside income.

Schneiderman, a former State Senator, said there's plenty of time to do more, if the governor and legislators want to.

"You should not confuse the total lack of political will on some issues for complexity and a lack of time," said Schneiderman, who said the last few weeks in a legislative session are like "dog years."

"Very complex pieces of legislation get written, rewritten, negotiated all the time," he said. "It's really too easy to say we don't have time."

Schneiderman has no powers under New York's structure of government to enact laws. He first needs to find a sponsor for his bills, and so far has not obtained a majority party backer in the Senate.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.
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