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Cuomo, legislature vow to finish session with achievements, despite corruption scandals

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the Adirondacks -- one of his few public appearances recently.

Every day for the past two weeks, news reports have focused on a federal probe of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration. It comes as both former leaders of the legislature are being sentenced to prison for corruption. Despite that, Cuomo and legislative leaders say they are trying to achieve some agenda items in the closing weeks of the legislative session.

Cuomo, whose former top aide and an associate are under federal investigation for potential fraud, made a rare public appearance. He was not at the state’s Capitol, but in a remote area of the Adirondacks, announcing progress on a state land purchase.

Cuomo says he plans to accomplish a lot with the legislature before the Senate and Assembly adjourn in mid-June.

The governor says he wants to work on fighting heroin addiction, and has set up a task force which includes several of his agency heads and addiction specialists and treatment centers.

“This state has a crisis with heroin and opiates,” said Cuomo who called it frightening.

Cuomo says he wants to work on improving the state’s housing policy to better aid the homeless. He also wants to improve access to breast cancer screening, after his longtime girlfriend, celebrity chef Sandra Lee was treated for the disease last year.

And in a time when every branch of state government is either under investigation or has been investigated for corruption, Cuomo says he still wants to pursue ethics reform. The governor says legislature should at least address a stalled measure to cancel the pensions of lawmakers convicted of felonies. Both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos will be keeping their pensions, under the current rules, even though both were convicted of multiple corruption charges. Cuomo says that’s wrong.

“Talk about adding insult to injury,” Cuomo said.

The governor once again talked of limiting outside income for legislators, which factored heavily in the corruption cases against the former leaders. Cuomo’s own former top aide, Joe Percoco, is being investigated by the U.S. attorney for possibly improperly getting consulting fees from companies doing business with the state. Senate Republicans previously rejected limiting outside income.

Cuomo says he’s even considering term limits for legislators and wants to close the LLC campaign finance loophole.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, following a private leaders meeting earlier in the week with Cuomo, says the governor and legislative leaders worked out a game plan for the second half of the session.

Heastie denies, though, that all of the scandals are hampering lawmakers from their work, but he concedes that the second half of the session will be unlikely to accomplish as much as the first half of the session. That included a new state budget with a minimum wage increase and partial paid family leave.

“I don’t know if ambitious is the right term,” Heastie said. “Will the second half be as rewarding to me as the first half, with the great things in the great budget? I don’t know that.”

Senate Leader John Flanagan, is more positive about achieving agenda items in the final weeks of the session, and says he’s still pushing to reform business regulations and bring down worker’s comp costs. Flanagan marks one year in his post this week, after replacing Skelos, who resigned after his indictment in May 2015. Flanagan says the legislature made progress last year, even amidst the resignations and corruption charges against the two majority party leaders. And he says they won’t be deterred by this year’s corruption scandals.

“We were productive before when a lot of things were going on, we’ll be productive now,” Flanagan said.

But Heastie tacitly admitted that expectations of what might be achieved have been lowered.

“We’ll try to do the best we can before we all have to run for reelection,” Heastie said.

In November, all 213 lawmakers face the voters for the first time since the corruption scandals erupted.

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.