Future of ethics reform an open question
Did passage of the state budget signal the end of Albany’s legislative session for 2017, or will other matters, including ethics reform, get done before the lawmakers adjourn in June?
Governor Cuomo says the recently enacted state budget included the majority of the priorities he named in his January State of the State message, including raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, providing free public college tuition for some middle-class families, and allowing ride-hailing services to operate upstate.
As for other topics, like ethics reform, the governor says it was left out of the final budget package for a reason.
“If we didn’t get it in done in the budget, it means you don’t have political will to get it done,” Cuomo said on April 15th. “Ethics reform, for example. I don’t see that happening with this legislature.”
Cuomo’s economic development projects, including the Buffalo Billion, were the target of a federal corruption probe that led to the arrest of nine former Cuomo associates, including the governor’s former closest aide. Trials begin later this year.
The governor’s remarks, made at an Easter Egg hunt at the executive mansion, are a change from what Cuomo said in late March when asked about the chances for ethics reform.
“We’re going to try like heck,” Cuomo said on March 21st.
Cuomo also, in those mid-March statements, took a different view of whether the budget was the sole means to get key policy items passed into law.
“The budget is primarily about finances,” said Cuomo, who said at the time that he expected to “take up” many of the ethics reforms, including improving voter access, after the budget.
John Kaehny, with the government reform group Reinvent Albany, says he’s not worried that the governor seems to be giving up on ethics reform for now. He said he’s heartened by Cuomo’s remarks, also on April 15th, that the governor would “respond to initiatives that the legislature comes up with”.
Kaehny says the measure known as the Procurement Integrity Act has support in the Democratic-led Assembly as well as the Senate. GOP Deputy Majority leader John DeFrancisco is a key sponsor. The bill would reinstate the State Comptroller‘s authority to review economic development contracts. Those powers were taken away in a 2011 law. Kaehny says many other lawmakers are also interested.
“The question before the Capitol and the legislature is, are they going to fix a gigantic problem that was revealed last year,” Kaehny said, referring to the corruption charges, including bribery and bid rigging on projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars. “And that problem has not been fixed yet.”
The governor has offered his own reforms. Instead of giving the comptroller back oversight powers, Cuomo would set up a special Inspector General as part of his administration, to oversee economic development contracts. The governor says he does believe there is “more work to do” when it comes to ethics reform.
Cuomo’s Empire State Development agency has also taken a number of steps to increase oversight of contracts.
The state budget did include more spending on economic development in the budget, including more money for Regional Economic Development Councils and another $500 million dollars for projects in Buffalo.
In the meantime, Cuomo says instead of negotiating with the legislature at the Capitol, he plans to focus instead on building infrastructure, including airports roads and bridges, and the long awaited upgrade of New York City’s Penn station.
“I want to make sure they get done,” Cuomo said.
And the governor says he wants to make sure the projects are finished on time.