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Andrew Cuomo’s ethics reforms for legislature appear stalled

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks to reporters after

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks to reporters after the Regional Economic Development Council Awards ceremony in Albany on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY — Nearly two weeks have passed since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed substantial pay raises for legislators in a special session this month in return for transformative changes to scandal-plagued Albany, including term limits and other ethics measures.

Yet in the 12 days since Cuomo detailed 11 proposals, including two constitutional amendments, there have been no public hearings on the measures, no committee meetings to debate the ideas, and little public discussion of the status of talks among Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie or Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.

The lag in the effort, which at one point had been expected to prompt a special session last week, has led to skepticism about the ethics measures.

John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, which advocates for open, accountable government, said he hopes the ethics reforms are tabled until the regular session begins in January, when the public and legislators can take a closer look at the proposals.

“We are concerned that the session will be used to pass a wish list of controversial items and even fake reforms — an Albany specialty — that do nothing to fix glaring problems with procurement, campaign finance and ethics laws,” he said.

Many good-government advocates have wanted to see many of the ethics proposals enacted for years, but not in the way it may happen as soon as this week. Cuomo is seeking to leverage legislators’ keen interest in their first pay raise since 1999, which must be adopted by Dec. 31 to avoid a two-year delay in collecting what could be a 47 percent raise to $116,000 a year.

“The process is always murky at best,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “If history is any guide, they are trying to get the deal that makes the best headline, not which makes the best sense.”

“This is awful beyond awful,” said Richard Brodsky of Wagner Graduate School of Public Service in Manhattan and a former Westchester assemblyman who supports the pay raise and many of ethics proposals. “There are lines that ought not to be crossed.”

So far, private conversations between Cuomo and legislative leaders appear to have eliminated at least some of the ethics measures, which have long been a priority for New Yorkers in public polls.

“Term limits is a non-starter,” Heastie said after a private planning meeting with the Assembly’s Democratic majority last week.

By late last week, even Cuomo was unsure of his special session. “I don’t know that we will have achieved enough progress to have a special session, but we are still talking,” Cuomo said Thursday.

His priorities for the special session also may have moved away from groundbreaking measures toward what he called timely proposals. They include allocating homeless aid before winter hits hardest and funding a State Police task force to investigate a spike in hate crimes since the presidential election.

“Some of the issues are not necessarily timely,” Cuomo said, referring to the constitutional amendment to create term limits. He also said there are many legitimate reasons to give legislators a raise, including passage of six budgets on time or nearly on time, economic improvements and “this state is moving in the right direction. So these are fundamentally different parameters than years ago.”

Tensions between the executive and legislative branches have worsened after Cuomo’s appointees on a pay commission earlier this month opposed granting a raise to legislators. That thrust the dicey political issue back into Albany’s notorious and opaque horse-trading process.

From that tension rose the possibility of a rare, dramatic move by the legislature to act on its own bills for raises and no other measures, and then try to override a potential veto by Cuomo. Those bills would have to be introduced by Sunday night for passage on Wednesday.

“We have to see if we can get to a place where everybody is comfortable,” Heastie said. “We are just not there.”

Legislators are grousing that Cuomo is holding up their pay raise for a fourth round of ethics measures and restrictions aimed at the legislature, despite indictments this fall by the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara that include people involved with Cuomo’s economic development programs. Federal prosecutors have accused a longtime top aide to Cuomo and a lobbyist who is a longtime associate of Cuomo of extracting payments from developers who are big contributors to Cuomo’s campaigns and who landed major contracts and tax breaks with the state. Cuomo is not accused of wrongdoing.

“Why some reforms and not others?” Kaehny said. “We don’t know.”

Cuomo’s ethics proposals don’t include a longtime goal of good-government advocates of restricting the ability of companies to exceed corporate limits in making campaign contributions through a loophole in campaign finance law. Limited liability corporations can provide donations many times the corporate limit. Cuomo’s campaign is the biggest recipient of LLC cash.

Cuomo’s proposals also do not address calls for greater independent oversight of state contracts by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, and do not provide Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman with the blanket authorization to investigate corruption that he seeks, although Cuomo lobbied for the same power when he was attorney general.

In the last pay raise, back in 1999, then-Gov. George Pataki extracted a big piece of his legacy — creating charter schools in exchange for a raise of 38 percent for lawmakers.

That raise brought legislators’ base pay to $79,500 for the part-time job. Leadership stipends and expense checks of $172 daily for work in Albany and away from home bring most legislators’ compensation to about $100,000, with the top leaders of the Assembly and Senate receiving $41,500 stipends on top of their base pay.

By comparison, the median full-time income for a New York household of four is $51,554, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The State Legislature is in need of a pay raise,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause. “However, a legislative pay raise should not come without serious reforms to reduce corruption.”

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