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Future of ethics reform an open question

Apr 18, 2017

Credit Matt Ryan New York Now

Did passage of the state budget signal the end of Albany’s legislative session for 2017, or will other matters, including ethics reform, get done before the lawmakers adjourn in June?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the recently enacted state budget included the majority of the priorities that he named in his January State of the State message, including raising the age for adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, providing free public college tuition for some middle-class families and allowing ride-hailing services to operate upstate.

Topics such as ethics reform were left out of the final budget package for a reason, the governor said.

“If we didn’t get it in done in the budget, it means you don’t have political will to get it done,” Cuomo said on April 15. “Ethics reform, for example. I don’t see that happening with this Legislature.”

Cuomo’s economic development projects, including the Buffalo Billion, were the target of a federal corruption probe that led to the arrest of nine former Cuomo associates, including the governor’s former closest aide. Trials begin later this year.

The governor’s remarks, made at an Easter egg hunt at the executive mansion, are a change from what Cuomo said in late March when asked about the chances for ethics reform.

“We’re going to try like heck,” Cuomo said on March 21.

Cuomo also took a different view in his mid-March statements of whether the budget was the sole means to get key policy items passed into law.

“The budget is primarily about finances,” said Cuomo.

He also said at the time that he expected to “take up” many of the ethics reforms, including improving voter access, after the budget.

John Kaehny with the government reform group Reinvent Albany said he’s not worried that the governor seems to be giving up on ethics reform for now. Kaehny said he’s heartened by Cuomo’s remarks on April 15 that he would “respond to initiatives that the Legislature comes up with.”

Kaehny said the measure known as the Procurement Integrity Act has support in the Democratic-led Assembly as well as the Senate. GOP Deputy Majority Leader John DeFrancisco is a key sponsor. The bill would reinstate the state comptroller‘s authority to review economic development contracts. Those powers were taken away in a 2011 law. Kaehny said many other lawmakers also are interested.

“The question before the Capitol and the Legislature is, ‘Are they going to fix a gigantic problem that was revealed last year?’ ” Kaehny said, referring to the corruption charges, including bribery and bid-rigging on projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars. “And that problem has not been fixed yet.”

The governor has offered his own reforms. Instead of giving back oversight powers to the comptroller, Cuomo would set up a special inspector general as part of his administration to oversee economic development contracts. The governor said he does believe there is “more work to do” when it comes to ethics reform.

Cuomo’s Empire State Development agency also has taken a number of steps to increase oversight of contracts.

The state budget did include more spending on economic development in the budget, including more money for Regional Economic Development Councils and another $500 million for projects in Buffalo.

In the meantime, Cuomo said instead of negotiating with the Legislature at the Capitol, he plans to focus instead on building infrastructure, including airports, roads and bridges, and the long-awaited upgrade of New York City’s Penn Station.

“I want to make sure they get done,” Cuomo said.

And, the governor said, he wants to make sure the projects are finished on time.