NY Gov. Cuomo proposes changes to ethics, campaign finance laws

Proposals follow D- grade from Center's State Integrity Investigation

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With a portrait of his father and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo on a screen, Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address and executive budget proposal at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center on January 13, 2016.

Mike Groll/AP

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called Wednesday for major changes to the state’s ethics and campaign finance laws, following months of scandal that punctuated deep-seated problems in Albany’s political culture.

The proposals, several of which the governor has pushed previously, were floated as part of Cuomo’s joint State of the State and budget address. They come in the wake of a tumultuous year during which both the Assembly speaker and Senate leader were arrested and then convicted on federal corruption charges. And they arrive on the heels of a D- grade for the Empire State from the State Integrity Investigation, a national ranking of state government accountability and transparency published last year by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.

After listing a series of accomplishments and goals for the state, from creating jobs and fighting poverty to tackling climate change, Cuomo said that restoring the public’s trust in government is a “threshold issue” that lawmakers must address.

“We have a big agenda, we want to do big things,” Cuomo said. “We need to restore the trust to do it.”

The speech was made two days after the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, made a rare statement to say his office was ending an inquiry into the Cuomo administration’s potential interference with an investigative panel that the governor had established in 2013 and then abruptly shut down in 2014. Bharara indicated, however, that he is still pursuing other probes into New York officials.

Those statements may help Cuomo push the Legislature to enact some of the changes he’s seeking, which include a cap on the outside income that lawmakers can earn — modeled on a similar program for the U.S. Congress — and a system for public financing of political campaigns. Cuomo also wants to strengthen the state’s oversight of lobbyists and to overhaul New York’s open records laws.

In addition, Cuomo called on lawmakers to close the so-called “LLC loophole,” a campaign finance law quirk that allows limited liability companies to give campaign contributions subject to the limits that apply to individuals, rather than the limits for corporations, which are far lower. Powerful interests, particularly within the real estate industry, have used the loophole to give millions of dollars to political candidates in recent years by registering multiple LLCs. No one has benefited more than Cuomo.

The state’s D- grade from the Center reflected many of the systemic problems that Cuomo’s proposals would address: New York earned an F in the category for public access to information and a D- for political financing. In the days following the report’s publication, a coalition of good-government groups used the grade to call for many of the reforms that Cuomo said he will press for this year, as did a couple of lawmakers.

But there’s a long road ahead, and anyone who follows politics in Albany might feel like they’ve heard this all before. Two years ago, Cuomo announced during his annual budget address that he wanted the legislature to pass significant ethics reforms as part of that year’s budget deal, including a system of public financing and more stringent disclosure of lawmakers’ finances.

A couple of months later, though, a budget deal emerged that included just a shadow of what Cuomo had called for — public financing, for example, was scaled back to a pilot program that went nowhere. Also part of the deal: Cuomo disbanded that investigative panel he had appointed the previous year to look into the capital’s culture of corruption.

Many of the governor’s critics cried foul, and a New York Times investigation found that Cuomo’s staff had been deeply involved with the supposedly independent panel’s work, particularly when it began investigating some of the governor’s political supporters (it was amid these allegations that Bharara, the U.S. attorney, began looking into Cuomo’s involvement with the panel). The intrigue made any progress on cleaning Albany’s image seem incremental, at best.

Then in January of last year, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested by federal authorities and charged with multiple corruption counts. Chatter about ethics ramped up, and in the spring, Cuomo and the legislature again attached a reform deal to the budget, only to fall short once more in the eyes of the state’s watchdog groups. This time, Cuomo did win greater disclosure of lawmaker’s finances, but only with significant loopholes that will continue to allow officials who moonlight as lawyers or consultants to hide the names of their clients. Major campaign finance changes, which Cuomo had been promising for years, remained on the wish list.

By the end of the year, however, Silver had been convicted, as had Dean Skelos, the former Senate leader, who was indicted in an unrelated corruption scheme just months after Silver. The events made it even harder to ignore the capital’s ethical problems.

Some of the details of Cuomo’s new initiatives remain unclear, said Blair Horner, executive director of NYPIRG, an advocacy group that has pressed for stronger ethics and campaign finance laws. “These all seem like good ideas,” he said, “but how you do it matters.”

Also unclear is how much support the governor will find in the Legislature. Last week, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, said that ethics reform would be among his top priorities, calling in particular for closing the LLC loophole and for a law to prevent lawmakers convicted of corruption from collecting their pensions, a change that’s included in the governor’s proposals.

In the Senate, a group of independent Democrats in December “relaunched” a campaign to ban corporate contributions and prohibit outside income. But Republican John Flanagan, the Senate majority leader, has said he would not support public financing of elections or a ban on outside income.

Neither Flanagan nor Heastie immediately responded to requests for comment for this article.

New York’s budget process — which earned an F in the Center’s report — gives the governor strong leverage over the legislature, Horner said, so the key will be whether Cuomo makes these reforms a priority.

“I think it really hinges on what the governor does after he introduces this,” he said, and “how hard he pushes.”

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