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Ethics reform hopes fade in Albany

Karen DeWitt

It’s just over three weeks until the legislative session is scheduled to end, and hopes for reform are fading, during an unprecedented level of corruption in state government.

Both former leaders of the legislature have been sentenced to prison terms. The U.S. attorney is investigating a close associate and former top staffer of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as well as the New York City mayor’s office. A new coalition of unions, progressive-leaning groups and reform advocates has formed to demand a clean-up. But even they admit their chances are slim for significant changes before the session ends.

“This coalition is not just a last-ditch-they’re-never-going-to-do-anything-let’s-have-a-press-conference kind of coalition,” said Mike Kink, with the group Strong Economy for All. “It really is a call to arms, a call to action.”

The groups say they are looking ahead to the November elections and key races in the state Senate, where some members oppose reforms, including the public financing of campaigns.

They are forming a new website, and using social media and the combined strength of their thousands of members and email contacts to organize demonstrations at the offices of state senators, conduct letter writing campaigns, and apply other types of grassroots pressure.

Many GOP senators have not signed on to the changes the groups are seeking, including public financing of campaigns and strict new limits on donations, easier and quicker voter registration, and true independent oversight of politicians and their actions.

“All of the senators who have the power to move this right now, they will be hearing from us,” said Jessica Wisneski, with Citizen Action. “The Assembly members need to hear it, too. And, certainly the governor.”

The Assembly, led by Democrats, has passed a number of the items. In his budget, Cuomo proposed limiting lawmakers’ outside income, closing a campaign finance law loophole that allows limited liability companies to circumvent donor limits, and canceling the pensions of elected officials convicted of a felony.

But Cuomo pulled back from the proposals, saying he would instead push for them during the end of the session. But in recent days, as his administration has been responding to subpoenas from the federal probe, he’s downplayed the chances of winning passage of the legislation.

“I think we will get some ethics reform,” Cuomo said in New York City on May 17. “I don’t think we will get all the ethics reform I would like.”

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.