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Cuomo and Assembly speaker offer joint ethics reform proposal

Governor Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the speaker of the Assembly say they hope the state Senate will sign on to their joint proposal for ethics reform, as a new poll finds the governor with dropping job approval numbers.

Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie took the unusual step of calling their ethics measure a deal, even though they need the Senate to agree to the plan in order for it to become law.

"This is a day of progress and good news," Cuomo said of the ethics reform proposal.

The bill would require that state lawmakers disclose details of their sources of outside income, even law clients, and that they prove they were actually in Albany (using an electronic card swipe system) before they are entitled to per diem expense payments. The proposal would not place any limits on how much a lawmaker could earn, as some reform groups have sought, but would prohibit payments from entities doing business with the state.

Technically, the state Assembly could adopt many of the measures on their own, without needing a law, and Heastie says his house may take action independently on some of the measures.

“I believe that we will look to do this, particularly on the per diem reform,” Heastie said.

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The Assembly has incentive to clean up its policies. Former Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested in late January and charged with running a multi-million dollar fraud scheme that included payments from two private law firms. Silver was forced to resign his post.

But Cuomo says he still wants the Senate to agree to the plan. And he wants the plan to be approved along with the state budget. Cuomo said previously that he will make the budget late if there’s no three way deal on ethics, as well as other issues like education reform .

“We want to get a piece of legislation that does this, which means it would be binding on the Assembly and the Senate,” Cuomo said.  

Credit Governor Andrew Cuomo / Flickr

The pact between Cuomo and the Assembly Democrats puts pressure on the Senate, which is led by Republicans, to acquiesce to the deal.  GOP senators discussed the proposal, as well as other aspects of the budget, in a private meeting. Senator John Bonacic, a Republican from the Hudson Valley, says senators are open to ideas that increase transparency, but he says they don’t like being “jammed” on the issue.

“He’s doing whatever he can to try to get the things he wants, and get himself out of the box he’s put himself in,” said Bonacic. He also says Cuomo has tried to link too many unrelated and difficult issues, including ethics and education changes, to the state spending plan.

Bonacic adds that he thinks it’s “a very bad strategy.”

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos says he’s not on board with the agreement. The Republican says he wants new rules that also reform the executive branch of government. And he says it takes three, not two, to make a deal in Albany.  

“I may have certain agreements with the governor, I may have certain agreements with the speaker, I may just have certain agreements with myself,” Skelos said. “But the bottom line is, you need three people, three branches, to get something done.”

Skelos says if the budget is late, Cuomo will have only himself to blame.

Ratings on a downward slide

The announcement on ethics comes as a new poll finds Cuomo at his lowest job approval rating since taking office, with 50 percent of voters thinking he’s doing a good or excellent job.

Quinnipiac University poll spokesman Mickey Carroll says that’s a drop of eight points since last December, before the current session began and before the governor began a more public feud with the state’s teachers unions.

“The Quinnipiac numbers show him at a tepid 50 percent to 39 percent,” Carrol said. “It’s the schools that do it.”

The poll also asked who voters trusted more, the governor or the teachers union. Fifty-five percent sided with the teachers,  while just 28 percent said they trusted Cuomo. Cuomo has called the teachers union and their allies part of bloated bureaucracy that needs to be broken. Teachers have responded with mass rallies at the Capitol and around the state, as well as negative TV ads.

"It's the nature of the beast."

Cuomo shrugged off the poll’s findings, attributing them to tension over state budget negotiations.  He also took an indirect shot at the teachers’ unions.

“As you are stirring that pot and ginning up opposition, and everybody is doing rallies and sending nasty emails,”  Cuomo said. “It’s the nature of the beast.”

New York State United Teachers, in a statement, say they are pleased that the public is rejecting what they call the governors false narrative about problems with the state’s education system.

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.