© 2022 WRVO Public Media
Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Senate Democrats say more reasons than ever to adopt their reform bills

Karen DeWitt/WRVO News file photo
Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Democratic colleagues and government reform advocates announce package of anti-corruption bills at the state Capitol.

Democrats pressing for bills to reform the state’s campaign finance system say the U.S. Attorney’s investigations into a panel controlled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo might help spur action on their measures.

Democrats in the state Senate introduced a package of bills that they say would lessen special interest influences in politics and curb some on going abuses.

In addition to establishing a publicly financed, matching small donor funding system for elections, the bills would also cut off pensions for lawmakers convicted of a felony, and prevent legislators accused of crimes from using their campaign war chests to pay for their legal defense.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says the measures are more important than ever in the midst of an ongoing spate of public corruption.

“Unfortunately, more elected officials have been accused of wrongdoing,” said Stewart-Cousins. “And more reports have come out detailing inappropriate practices and  violations of the public trust.”

The proposals come as former Senate Leader Joe Bruno, a Republican, is on trial for a second time on corruption charges, and two former Senate Democratic leaders face charges of embezzlement and bribery. A third Democrat, former Senate President Pedro Espada, is already in prison.

But the Democrats are the minority faction in the Senate. The chamber is ruled by a coalition of GOP Senators and five break-away Democrats, known as the Independent Democratic Conference.   The IDC leader, Sen. Jeff Klein has said passing public campaign finance reform before session ends is a priority for him as well.

“Certainly we need to have a public matching system,” Klein said recently. “We need to do more than we did in the budget.”

Klein and Cuomo had sought public finance and other reforms, as part of a budget deal, but in the end settled for a more limited ethics package that would strengthen  the regulation of campaign violations and enact stiffer anti bribery laws.  In exchange, Cuomo agreed to disband a Moreland Act Commission that he had appointed that was probing accusations of corruption in the legislature.

Sen. Liz Krueger, a sponsor of some of the Senate Democrat’s bills, says the budget deal was far from adequate.

“It was an exercise in snipe hunting,” said Krueger, who said the other lawmakers were only “pretending” that they were enacting reforms.

The Senate Democrats proposals also come as the New York Times reports that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has opened a grand jury probe into whether the Cuomo administration interfered with Moreland Commission investigations  that might have reflected badly on the governor or his major campaign donors.

Stewart-Cousins was asked for her reaction to the news of the grand jury probe by Bharara.

“He’s doing what he needs to do,” Stewart-Cousins said.  

Cuomo formed the Moreland Commission after the 2013 session, when the Senate leadership coalition of Republicans and Independent Democrats failed to agree to public campaign financing and other reforms.

Stewart-Cousins says that Cuomo would never have had to create the Moreland Commission in the first place, if Senate Democrats had been in power, because they would have approved the reform legislation last year.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.