Andrew Cuomo's love affair with governmental commissions

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo mingles with guests New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo mingles with guests following an event at City Hall in Lockport, N.Y. (July 23, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo didn't invent governmental commissions. But nobody seems to love them more than the first-term Democrat.

Stymied by legislators? Need to push policy in a new direction? Cuomo's got a commission for that. Or a task force.

In 2 1/2 years in office, he's formed panels to investigate the Legislature, redesign Medicaid, "rightsize" the state workforce, overhaul ethics, prepare for storms, site casinos, hand out grants, fix the education system and judicial salaries, boost minority-owned businesses and calculate tolls.

Some have been effective at moving the governor's agenda, such as one that recommended overhauling the Long Island Power Authority. Others, such as one targeting "mandate relief" for local governments, have been criticized for not offering any significant help. And some, such as a "tax fairness" commission, haven't been heard from since their launch.

 

Strategy has pros, cons

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Experts say the commission strategy carries several benefits: It brings more players to the table, invites public input and, if the panel is drawn widely, forces would-be critics to participate and share in the blame or glory.

The cons, they say, are that it deflects attention from problems without solving them. Some say the panels give a stamp of approval to policies the governor favors.

"The strategic use of the commission is to have them come to a conclusion that the administration would have anyway," said Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College.

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said in an email, "The governor believes in convening experts and stakeholders to examine problems and collectively identify solutions. From redesigning Medicaid to restructuring government, and rooting out waste among utilities' response to natural disasters, the record supports the effectiveness of this approach, which has broken down barriers that have previously impeded progress."

The latest Cuomo panel, dubbed the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, was created after a string of indictments and convictions involving state legislators, and after lawmakers rejected a Cuomo initiative to change campaign-finance laws and give him power to appoint a special counsel to investigate violations.

Among the cases last spring, Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) was charged with trying to rig a spot in the New York City mayoral election; ex-Sen. Shirley Huntley (D-Queens) was sentenced to 1 year in jail for stealing from a nonprofit she ran; and Assemb. Nelson Castro (D-Bronx) simultaneously resigned and acknowledged he had been informing on his legislative colleagues as part of a plea bargain in which he pleaded guilty to perjury.

Cuomo cast a wide net to create the anti-corruption panel, including Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and a bipartisan group of county district attorneys from around the state. Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice is among three co-chairs.

The governor said the panel "will convene the best minds in law enforcement and public policy from across New York to address weaknesses in the state public corruption, election and campaign finance laws, generate transparency and accountability, and restore public trust."

State Republican chairman Ed Cox said the corruption panel has "a great title," but derided it as political cover. "It gives him a huge political benefit of saying, 'I'm doing something about political corruption,' " Cox said.

He contended that "all these commissions are highly touted, but in the end, they're not always substantive," saying panels on Medicaid redesign, local-government mandate relief and ethics had failed.

Further, some Republicans are suspicious of the panels.

"They will make recommendations. Hopefully, the governor has not already written those recommendations," Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said when Cuomo announced the corruption commission.

 

Warning against 'witch hunt'

Skelos warned that the panel's deliberations should not become a "witch hunt" against state legislators.

Rice said this week the corruption commission began issuing subpoenas, which reportedly went to some Manhattan real estate companies. She said public hearings will begin in September.

Arguably one of Cuomo's most effective panels investigated LIPA's performance during superstorm Sandy. It highlighted LIPA failures and recommended privatizing the utility. After that idea ran into political opposition and sticky financial questions, Cuomo persuaded the Legislature to approve a hybrid plan that kept LIPA as a financial holding company but handed day-to-day operations to a private company.

Further, the panel said it found evidence of "highly questionable" billing by Navigant, a company that consulted with LIPA, and referred the issue to federal prosecutors. The Chicago energy consulting firm has defended its work, saying it maintained the "highest industry standards of ethics and integrity."

In contrast, a Cuomo panel on reducing "mandates," or state programs paid for by local governments, has been criticized as not providing large-scale relief.

Political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said commissions can provide grounding for policymaking. "It gets you standing for making decisions, so you don't appear to be acting unilaterally," Sheinkopf said. "You're bringing more people to the table. So it is more democratic in some ways."

Cuomo also has shrewdly picked members of some panels, experts said. For example, a commission that will serve as a "financial restructuring board" for local governments -- which has been criticized by unions -- includes representatives from Attorney General Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who have enjoyed union support. Now, all will share ownership of the commission's actions, experts said.

Syracuse University political science professor Jeffrey Stonecash, who once worked in the state legislature, said struggling municipalities are a looming major problem with no immediate remedy. He said the commission, like other panels, gives the governor "some breathing room . . . some time to figure out what to do."

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