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Politics and Government

Tensions running high over state budget as deadline approaches

Karen DeWitt
WRVO file photo
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (middle) speaking with Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (seated right)


There’s just about a week-and-a-half left before the budget deadline, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers remain at odds over a number of issues, including whether ethics disclosure rules should apply to the governor as well as the legislature. They also disagree on a number of education reform proposals.

On Thursday, the Senate and Assembly called a public budget conference meeting. It lasted less than two minutes, and focused mainly on listing when subconference committees would meet and the relatively small amount of money they could haggle over.

Afterward, it was evident that Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is still smarting from the announcement of a joint accord on ethics reforms between Cuomo and the Assembly speaker. The Senate is needed to enact the proposed changes on financial disclosure, but was shut out of the deal.  

Skelos says senators want to also include the executive branch in any new disclosure laws, but that is not part of the agreement worked out between Cuomo and the Assembly.

“What applies to the legislature should also apply to the governor,” Skelos  said.

Skelos held up a book detailing the Senate’s expenditures that is required to be published each year.

“You can find out where any of our counsel, staff people, counsel went, how much they paid for lodging, everything, all their gas expenses,” said Skelos.

He compared that to the governor’s staff, saying that when they “move their minions, of 40 or 50 for a press conference," they do not have to reveal expenses.

Skelos and other Senate Republicans also want the domestic partners of top officials to also disclose their financial interests. Cuomo’s live-in girlfriend is Sandra Lee, is a Food Network star, who holds many contracts with top national companies. This week, Lee announced a deal with a major liquor manufacturer that has business before the state. The company, Diageo ,which owns Smirnoff, Guinness, and Johnnie Walker, has contributed money to candidates in New York and lobbied the legislature.

Lee has never acted in the role of traditional first lady, and has kept her career separate from Cuomo’s.

The state ethics commission requires officials to disclose information about some of the finances of their married partners. Skelos denies that the proposal is a personal attack on Cuomo.  

“If the governor thinks then that my wife should not have to disclose, then say that,” Skelos said. “It’s not about his friend, she’s a wonderful person. This is about equality in terms of disclosure between the executive branch and the legislative branch.”

Cuomo’s office did not have a direct response, but in a tweet, Cuomo Spokeswoman Melisa DeRosa called the issue a “red herring."

Several senators, including Skelos, earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in outside income from private law firms, and if the governor’s ethics package is adopted, would have to disclose more details, including names of their clients.

A top aide to Cuomo said that financial disclosure by live-in partners of officials was not part of the deal struck between Cuomo and the Assembly, and would not be part of negotiations going forward.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who stood quietly beside Skelos, while Skelos critiqued the governor’s and Assembly’s proposals, did not rule out including domestic partners in a final deal on financial disclosure.  

“That’s something that can be discussed,” Heastie said. “That’s something that can be put on the table.”

Quinnipiac University poll found that 64 percent of New Yorkers believe that spouses and live-in partners of elected officials should be required to disclose the source and size of their income.

The state and city bar associations gave a boost to the governor’s and assembly’s proposal, saying it strikes the right balance between greater transparency and protecting the privacy of law clients.  

Earlier in the week, Heastieembraced the governor and held a joint press conference with Cuomo on ethics. But he strongly disagrees with the governor’s plan for state takeover of some of New York’s failing schools. Cuomo also wants to add 100 more charter schools.

“This idea that we should close schools to open up charter schools I don’t think is an accurate way to go,” Heastie said. “Particularly since charter schools sometimes have problems as well.”

Heastie, who says he’s having private talks with the governor on education issues that do not include the Senate, also indirectly criticized Cuomo’s public attacks on the teachers unions. The speaker says many of the children who attend poorly performing schools have problems that “have nothing to do with the classroom."

“To blame just totally on teachers I think is unfair,” Heastie said.

Cuomo has threatened to hold up the budget over a number of issues, including education policy.

Skelos predicts this budget will be the fifth on-time one, but says if the budget is late, it will be Cuomo’s fault.