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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo: Top state, local elected officials should release tax returns

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed legislation to

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed legislation to require state and local elected officials who earn more than $100,000 to release their tax returns. Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

ALBANY — New York would become the first state to require all state and local elected officials who earn $100,000 or more to reveal their tax returns under an anti-corruption proposal that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo calls “simple and profound.”

But detractors say the measure ignores the most common nexus of corruption: State money and campaign contributions.

In his budget address last month, Cuomo noted that he and other statewide elected officials already allow reporters to view their tax returns annually, though it's not required by law.

“You can see who’s paying me, and who’s not paying me, and you can see if there’s a conflict of interest,” Cuomo said.

“But I would do it for all elected officials across the state," Cuomo said. "If you make more than $100,000 from the public, you should make your income taxes available because we have nothing to hide.”

If enacted, Cuomo's bill would require statewide elected officials, including every Assembly and Senate member and their powerful leaders, to release their taxes.

The same would go for local elected officials, including county executives, big-city mayors, district attorneys and sheriffs, town supervisors and New York City Council members.

Cuomo's bill also would ban foreign-owned corporations from making campaign contributions.

State legislative leaders preparing for budget negotiations with Cuomo haven't taken positions on Cuomo’s measure.

The New York State Association of Counties and New York Conference of Mayors — lobbying groups that, like the Assembly and Senate leaders, also are seeking funding in Cuomo’s budget — also have not commented on Cuomo's tax-release plan.

The state already requires statewide elected officials, including state legislators, to file financial disclosure forms listing their sources of income, and those of their spouses. There also are questions about real estate holdings, stocks and bonds and other investments.

The disclosure forms, however, only require officials to disclose their income in broad ranges.

IRS Form 1040s would provide more information that could help identify possible corruption.

The tax forms require detail about income, expenses, investment gains and losses and business travel and meals. The IRS forms also disclose the amount of property taxes paid, the cost of tuition and fees paid and any “household employment taxes,” which could identify hired domestic help.

While state disclosure forms specifically exclude gifts, debts and income involving relatives, IRS 1040s require such information.

Unlike the state forms, federal tax returns require home mortgage interest rates along with the amount of alimony and child support payments as well as dates of divorce.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Cuomo's legislation would be unique in the nation.

Among the backers is Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat.

“In the past, we often had politicians enter public service to do well for themselves, instead of to do good for the people they represent,” Curran said when she introduced similar county legislation in August.

Curran's measure hasn’t passed the county legislature, which is controlled by Republicans.

Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin, a frequent Cuomo critic, also supports the tax-disclosure measure.

“Requiring the release of tax returns can be a benefit to open government, ethics and overall efforts to maintain the confidence of the people we serve,” said McLaughlin, a Republican.

But Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New York State, said Cuomo's proposal "won’t move the needle far toward truly combating corruption.”

Ladd Bierman said, “much more could be accomplished by the governor's [past] proposals to further limit contributions by those doing business with the state and contributions to political parties. More also could be accomplished by reforming the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and giving New York independent and effective ethics enforcement.”

State legislators and good-government advocates have said JCOPE, which long has been staffed by former Cuomo appointees, missed a string of Albany corruption scandals that were uncovered by federal investigations.

Richard Brodsky, a former Democratic Assembly member who teaches at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, said Cuomo's tax-disclosure bill is "of almost no practical value,” because it fails to address possible connections between state money and campaign contributions.    

Investigators and reporters have had to piece together campaign finance records of individuals and their spouses, their home and business addresses, their companies, employees and subsidiaries against state contracts, grants and policies to uncover some of New York's most significant scandals.

“If you want to know ‘who’s paying me,’ disclose campaign contributors with the business they do with the state,” Brodsky said. “It’s not what’s in it,” he said of Cuomo’s proposal, “it’s what’s not in it that’s important.”

Good-government advocates also warn that Cuomo’s new measure could discourage political opponents, including wealthy challengers who could avoid campaign contribution and spending limits in self-funded campaigns.

Cuomo has defended his own prodigious fundraising, totaling more than $100 million over a dozen years in state office, by saying he must be prepared for a wealthy self-funded opponent.

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