ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed reforms for the state contracting process and other ethics measures in Albany after two years of corruption convictions, including former top legislative leaders and a top aide to the governor.
“If you read the headlines over the past few years, they have been continuous and they have been disappointing, and they have been disgraceful, and they have been widespread,” Cuomo said in his budget address last month. “We should be expected to do everything we can to have a system in place that safeguards against fraud or theft, and there it is a continuing battle, but there I believe we can do more to ensure the public trust."
Cuomo is proposing to tighten oversight on lobbying and state contracting as well as limit the influence of big money donors to campaign funds.
Good-government advocates say Cuomo hit the target, but miss the bull's-eye.
“I think it’s part of the new environment in Albany,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy adviser at Reinvent Albany, a good-government group. “There is a kind of friendly competition going on which we see as good where the governor and legislature are competing to do the most reform in government.”
But he noted that many good-government groups believe the proposals fall short by not proposing significant changes to the enforcer of ethics and lobbying laws, the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics. The commission has been criticized by good-government groups, legislators and some commissioners as being ineffective and not independent enough from the governor and legislative leaders, who appoint the panel’s members.
“There is a lot of stuff to be supportive of and some areas where he went ahead of the legislature,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. But “the issue of independent enforcement is central to making it work, and it’s not in the governor’s proposal.”
Cuomo’s proposals include:
- A code of conduct for lobbyists to combat conflicts of interests by banning political consultants hired by officials from also lobbying the same officials. He said he will enact the measure as a policy in the executive branch if the State Legislature doesn’t make it law.
- Eliminating the LLC loophole that allows corporations to greatly exceed their $5,000 limit for campaign contributions by creating limited liability companies, often under names that mask the corporate parent’s identity.
- Incentives to encourage and match small donations with state money under lower maximum contribution limits. The goal is to limit the influence of big donors. Chisun Lee, senior counsel in the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Social Justice at New York University Law School, called Cuomo’s campaign financing proposal “a bold package of reforms to really improve New York Democracy for everyday New Yorkers.”
- Prohibiting campaign contributions from vendors during a contract-award process. In the Buffalo Billion scandal, two longtime associates of Cuomo were convicted in a bid-rigging scheme as they lobbied for state aid while working for developers who were some of the Cuomo’s biggest campaign contributions. Cuomo’s longtime top aide and one-time campaign manager, Joseph Percoco, was convicted along with former Cuomo aide Todd Howe. Cuomo was never accused of wrongdoing.
- Requiring lobbyists to report campaign contributions and more detail on their lobbying activities to JCOPE, while increasing penalties for violations and requiring a longer wait before government workers can work as lobbyists.
- A new layer of oversight for state contracting. Under the proposal, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli will again conduct “pre-audits” of contracts valued at $250,000 and more for the public universities and the state Office of General Services. Cuomo and the legislature removed this authority from the comptroller in 2012. Cuomo had argued it slowed down the contracting process too much.
“By restoring independent checks and balances, we can establish a first line of defense and a strong deterrent to prevent abuse and protect taxpayers,” said Jennifer Freeman, spokeswoman for DiNapoli. If the comptroller isn't done with a pre-audit by Cuomo's 30-day deadline, the comptroller could reject the contract to restart the clock, under the proposal.
By inserting these policy bills into his budget proposal Cuomo has far more leverage in shaping bills under state law. In the budget process, the legislature may vote on the final negotiated measure, or miss the April 1 budget deadline, which then allows the governor to impose his measures. New this year is a provision tied to substantial legislative pay raises that could be rescinded if the budget is late.
“So, the governor has even more power than he has amassed over the last eight years,” said Assmb. Thomas Abinanti (D-Tarrytown), chairman of the chamber’s Oversight, Analysis and Investigation Committee. “His ethics package is a total distraction.”
He said many of Cuomo’s proposals fail to confront the lack of oversight that led to several high-profile corruption convictions in the last two years. For example, Cuomo would restore more pre-audit authority to the comptroller for contracts of the State University of New York, but not for the affiliated entities of SUNY. The affiliates, organized as nonprofit companies that award state contracts, were at the heart of the Buffalo Billion scandal.
Some key legislators still plan to push for ethics changes in the post-budget legislative session.
“While I appreciate the governor's agreement with Comptroller DiNapoli on procurement oversight, I do not believe we ought to compromise on such an essential reform,” said Sen. James Skoufis, a Hudson Valley Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Investigations Committee. “I remain supportive of legislation that fully restores procurement oversight — and then some. We should not settle for half a loaf when it comes to rooting out economic development corruption.”
"The way to get the most effective ethics reforms is through the normal legislative process, including hearings and input from experts, said Sen Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx), chairwoman of the Senate Ethics and Internal Governance Committee. “That's what I want to see."
“With the change in the Senate, these things will receive real consideration,” said Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), a member of the Assembly ethics committee.