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Ethics reform may be limited to pension forfeiture


Expectations for major ethics reform in the state legislature are low, even though both former leaders of the legislature are facing prison time for corruption. With just over a week to go before the session ends, only one measure — to take back the pensions of lawmakers who are convicted felons — seems to be in play.

New York already has a law that says new legislators can’t keep their pensions if they are convicted of a crime. But in order to strip the pensions from convicted senators and Assembly members who are already serving in the legislature, the state constitution needs to be changed.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it “adds insult to injury” to tell New Yorkers they have to pay the pension of someone “convicted for abusing the public trust.”

“That’s lunacy,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo and legislative leaders actually agreed over a year ago, in March 2015, to amend the state constitution to end the pensions for elected officials who are convicted felons. But the measure has stalled in the Assembly, where Democrats believe the bill needs to be narrowed so that low-level staffers or some union members would not be included in its provisions.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he’s confident that a consensus will be reached.

“I do believe that we’re going to get that done,” said Heastie, who called it “extremely important.”

Senate Republicans like the bill as it is written and don’t want to make changes. Majority Leader John Flanagan said after a private leaders meeting with Cuomo that he believes an agreement can come before the legislature adjourns on June 16, but he did not offer details.

“It’s all part of the discussion about ethics,” said Flanagan. “That’s why we meet. These are the kinds of things that we are going through.”

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has had to calculate and sign off on the pensions for former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos, who are both convicted felons, as well as several other lawmakers convicted of felonies. The amounts total hundreds of thousands of dollars. DiNapoli said he’d like to see the law changed, too.

“It’s overdue,” DiNapoli said.

When it comes to other reforms, Cuomo and the Senate and the Assembly are at odds.

Cuomo supports closing the so-called LLC loophole, which exempts limited liability companies from campaign donation limits. Assembly Democrats have passed a bill to close the loophole, but Senate Republicans are opposed. They argue that if businesses are hampered from giving large donations, it would give lower-level elected officials and labor unions an unfair advantage.

The governor also would like to strictly limit outside income for state lawmakers. The cases against both of the former legislative leaders involved illegal use of outside income. The Assembly supports a different measure to restrict outside income, but the Senate has rejected the concept, saying there’s value to having a part-time legislature where members belong to other professions.

Senate Republicans and Cuomo say they support some form of term limits, but that’s something the Assembly rejects, Heastie said. He said there already are term limits in place: elections. State lawmakers face the voters every two years.

“We don’t believe that after a certain year, you go from being an honest person to a dishonest person, based on the number of years you serve in office,” Heastie said.

Cuomo said lawmakers should be embarrassed to adjourn without making changes, given all the ongoing scandals. He said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that some ethics reforms will get done before the legislature adjourns.

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.