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NY budget talks snagged over proposed domestic-partner ethics law, a jab at Cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and food

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and food TV star Sandra Lee on Election Day, Nov. 4, 2014. Credit: EPA / Justin Lane

ALBANY -- Closed-door budget negotiations that will determine how to spend $142 billion and change major policies affecting New Yorkers are snagged due to a nasty bit of public backbiting over whether Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's girlfriend should have to disclose her personal finances.

As negotiations enter the last full week before the April 1 deadline for a new budget, majority Republicans in the State Senate are pushing a measure to require domestic partners of all state elected officials to divulge their finances. It's a jab at Cuomo, who lives with his girlfriend, Sandra Lee, a Food Network personality.

The measure has little chance of passing -- there is no support in the Assembly -- but it reflects the tension of budget talks as they go to the wire. Cuomo is using the significant powers of a governor during the budget process to force an ethics-reform package on the State Legislature. By alluding to Lee, the Republicans seek to redirect the spotlight at Cuomo's own ethics.

Cuomo's proposal to require disclosure of details of state legislators' outside income -- often from law firms -- and their clients has angered many lawmakers. Legislators' outside law and consulting jobs often have been at the heart of Albany corruption probes that over the past decade have targeted more than 30 public officials.

While budget talks are dominated by spending issues, the dispute over disclosure of domestic-partner income is adding stress to the negotiations.

Cuomo's counsel, Alphonso David, said last week that the GOP Senate proposal "doesn't go to the source of the problem." Cuomo's ethics plan, David said, "actually goes to the source of the problem: Legislators that are engaged in outside activity where there is a conflict with their public work."


Skelos: It's about 'equality'

The Senate GOP argues that times have changed and unmarried domestic partners should have to file the same financial information spouses of elected officials already must provide to detect and deter conflicts of interest.

"This is about equality, in terms of disclosure, between the executive branch and the legislative branch," State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said.

Neither lawmakers nor statewide officials need to disclose domestic partner income now.

A Quinnipiac University poll last week found that 64 percent of New Yorkers believe spouses and domestic partners of elected leaders should be subject to disclosure laws.

Alaska and Maine require domestic partners to file ethics disclosure information, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

New York City government requires financial disclosures for domestic partners. And Cuomo, when he served as state attorney general, once required principals of a company to disclose finances from domestic partners as part of a settlement of one of his investigations.

Domestic partner disclosure, which arose in February as a poke by the Senate at Cuomo early in the budget process, became a stiff jab last week after Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) struck a deal for an ethics package -- with Senate Republicans left to find out about it in the news media.


Aides take to Twitter

The deal had the potential to box in the GOP majority so they could be seen as an impediment to ethics reform.

As Skelos again raised the domestic-partner issue last week, Cuomo aides took to Twitter.

"Ladies and gentleman, behold: the art of misdirection in action," read one tweet. Others included, "Red herring Alert," and, "The administration is glad to negotiate disclosure of all girlfriends."

Dick Dadey, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Union, a good-government group, called the domestic partner issue "a bit of a distraction from the need to pass more stringent ethics reform. It's a legitimate issue that should be addressed, but I don't think it's important given how corruption takes place in Albany. . . . It's getting away from the real solutions."

But while spouses rarely have factored into Albany corruption probes, Blair Horner of the nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group argued that, "Government policy shouldn't be guided by scandal. Situations are common now that weren't common when these rules were written . . . I think it's legitimate to discuss in the 21st century, but it's not in my top five issues."

With Yancey Roy

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