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Ethics Reform In Albany Faces Crucial Month

AP Photo/Mike Groll

In less than a month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers will get the chance to make major ethics fixes as part of the state budget. But, so far, there’s been little focus on responding to corruption scandals that led to two legislative leaders facing long prison terms.

It seems a unique moment, tailored for major reforms in the way Albany works. Both the leader of the Senate and the Assembly have been arrested, tried and convicted in the past year, on major corruption charges, and the U.S. Attorney may still be investigating others.

Cuomo has been campaigning around the state, riding on a bus and speaking to enthusiastic crowds, hungry for change.

“We’re going to fight the good fight, and we’re going to win the good fight!” Cuomo shouted at a rally in Kingston.

His subjects: paid family leave funded by workers and the minimum wage.

“Raise the minimum wage to $15, do it today,” Cuomo exhorted the crowd.”

The speeches sometimes include pledges to end mass incarceration, and even mocking words against Presidential candidate Donald Trump. But the governor does not address corruption reform.

“The sounds you here in Albany are the sounds of crickets,” said Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).

He says the governor only talks about ethics reform when “pressed” by the media, and legislative leaders are trying to avoid the topic altogether.

“There have been no hearings, no bill markups,” said Horner, who said the only evidence of any interest in the matter is the governor’s budget proposals.

Governor Cuomo proposed significant ethics changes in his state spending plan, including strictly limiting outside income, and doing away with a large loophole in campaign finance restrictions that allows unlimited contributions through Limited Liability Companies, or LLCs.

But Cuomo only brings up ethics and corruption when asked by the media. He says there isn’t room for the topic in a stump speech that he’s been delivering in several stops across the state.

“There’s not a lot of continuity between a $15 minimum wage campaign and ethics,” Cuomo said recently to a reporter. “It’s not the most fluid transition. Maybe you could do it, but it’s tough for me.”

Some in the legislature have been even less open to the changes Cuomo is proposing. Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan of Long Island says he’s personally against the idea of limiting outside income.

“I don’t believe in a ban on outside income,” Flanagan said earlier this winter.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie says his house is working on a “serious” ethics proposal, to be released in the Assembly’s one-house budget proposal, later in March.

But the speaker grows annoyed when pressed about it.

“It’s hard to put a time frame on it,” Heastie told a group of journalists. “Because when I give some kind of a time frame and if we don’t meet it, you guys say I’m delaying things.”

And Heastie says the Assembly has already taken a number of steps, including more disclosure of outside income, the hiring of a new Assembly ethics officer, and closing the LLC campaign finance loophole.

Cuomo insists ethics reform still remains a priority for him.

“I don’t know how I could be more aggressive,” said Cuomo who says it’s “silly” to pit items like raising the minimum wage against ethics reform.

The Governor has not said he’ll hold up the budget over ethics, as he has threatened to do in the past. He says so far he’s not offering any “ultimatums.”

Horner, with NYPIRG, remains hopeful that Cuomo will not let the moment pass.

“90 percent of the public thinks that there’s a problem in Albany,” said Horner. “A public debate is a debate he can win. Yet, there’s been nothing.”

The outcome will be known on March 31st, when the budget is due.

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.