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Cuomo pushes reform for others

J. Stephen Conn

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said one of the reasons he is actively campaigning for Democrats to take over the New York State Senate is that he believes he will have more success getting ethics changes done without the GOP in charge.

Cuomo, who’s been holding rallies for Democratic candidates in key Senate races, said he thinks a legislature controlled by Democrats will be more willing to approve changes to address a wave of scandals plaguing state government.

“We’re going to do the unfinished business this year,” Cuomo said at a rally on Long Island. “And we’re going to start with real ethics reform.”

Both former leaders of the Legislature are facing prison time after being found guilty of corruption schemes that focused in part on their manipulations to gain millions of dollars in outside income.

Cuomo supports a ban or strict limits on the amount lawmakers can earn outside of their legislative salaries. The governor said it leads to, at the very least, a conflict of interest.

“The question always becomes, when they pay you as a private person, are they actually paying you as a private person, or are they paying you because they want access as a legislator?” Cuomo said.

Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan said earlier this year that he does not support limiting lawmakers’ ability to earn outside money.

“I don’t believe in a ban on outside income,” Flanagan said.

The GOP conference ultimately agreed to reject the idea, saying they are philosophically opposed to what would amount to a full-time legislature. Flanagan himself does not earn any outside income other than his pay as majority leader.

John Kaehny with the reform group Reinvent Albany said it’s true that Senate Republicans resisted reforms, including capping outside income and some campaign finance reform like closing a loophole that allows limited liability companies to skirt donor limits.

Reinvent Albany is nonpartisan and does not weigh in on whether a Senate controlled by Democrats or Republicans would be better. But he said Cuomo, as the powerful governor of the state, could have tried harder.

“The governor has not shown the same level of enthusiasm for campaign finance reform, or closing the LLC loophole,” Kaehny said, “as he has for the $15 minimum wage or marriage equality or other major campaigns that he’s championed.”

Kaehny said the governor would have had to spend large amounts of political capital to achieve the ethics changes, without a lot of immediate credit from the public.

Cuomo, in his remarks at a fundraiser for the Democratic Senate Committee, disputes any accusations that he didn’t try hard enough.

“I’m not shy. I asked, once, twice, three times,” Cuomo said. “I tried everything. They’re not going to do it.”

Kaehny said the governor also should focus more on fixes to address a scandal in his own administration over economic development contracts. He points out that just a month ago, nine people — including a former top aide to Cuomo and the head of a key State University division — were charged with rigging over $750 million of state economic development contracts for personal gain.

“This casts a bright light on the fact that the state has no pay-to-play laws at all,” Kaehny said.

Reinvent Albany also wants reforms of state contracting processes, including greater transparency.

The governor has said that his own economic development agency will now take over managing contracts awarded by the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute. SUNY Poly is one of the focuses of the corruption probe, and its former president, Alain Kaloyeros, has been charged.

Cuomo also said contract reform will be a major part of his 2017 agenda.

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.