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Democratic leaders in New York scored two major progressive policy wins in their recent budget deal with Republicans who control the state senate—a $15 minimum wage by 2021 and 12 weeks of paid family leave for all workers. But a third progressive prize—a sweeping ethics reform package proposed in the wake of recent high-level corruption convictions—never made it into the budget package.
Critics say the budget deal was the legislature’s last, best opportunity to pass comprehensive ethics reforms since last year’s convictions of former Democratic Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver and former Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos on federal corruption charges of profiting off the power of their public offices. Sentencing is expected Wednesday for Silver and later this month for Skelos.
The short-circuited ethics overhaul took some of the luster off what was otherwise a crowning moment for Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who is widely believed to have national—even presidential—ambitions, but who is sometimes accused by progressives of skewing too far toward the center. Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton stood by Cuomo’s side at the victory rally to celebrate the $15 minimum wage increase.
But in the background, reform advocates wondered whether Cuomo is truly interested in real reform, and whether the legislature will ever support measures that directly impact their personal livelihoods and campaign habits—especially with Republicans in control of the state senate.
Reformers say it’s a case of déjà vu—another reminder that state leaders have a habit of shirking reform, even in the face of massive scandal and corruption. Dick Dadey, executive director of the government watchdog group Citizens Union, had harsh words for Cuomo, State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.
“It’s a shame and embarrassment to New York that three-and-a-half months after the convictions of these leaders, not one piece of anti-corruption legislation was passed, whether it was tied to budget or not,” Dadey, told The American Prospect. “The budget provided leverage to get a strong package passed. It’s unfathomable that our three political leaders could not find a common ground to address the corruption in New York state.”
Cuomo has privately promised reformers that he will continue to press ethics reform legislation this session, but reform advocates say there’s not much of a window for it to actually pass. And they openly question whether he’s willing to risk his growing national profile to engage in a fight that will require him to utilize a tremendous amount of political capital. Some have even resigned themselves to the conclusion that comprehensive ethics reform won’t stand a chance until after the 2016 elections.
“It’s one thing to put it in and fight for it, which is what he did on $15. It’s another thing to put it in and not fight for it, which is what he did on ethics,” Blair Horner, legislative director for New York Public Interest Research Group, said in an interview. Horner, who briefly worked for Cuomo when the latter was attorney general, has become one of the state’s most outspoken advocates for ethics and campaign-finance reform.
“The whole thing hinges on what the governor does,” says Horner. “If he chooses to make it a priority, there’s a shot.”
Corruption scandals have long plagued Albany, but the legislature’s tainted public image has worsened in recent years. Of the 33 state legislators who have left their seats because of criminal or ethical problems since 1999, more than half have stepped down since Cuomo took office in 2010. In its annual ranking of corruption in the states last year, the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity gave New York a D minus.
Cuomo’s ethics record has also suffered. Critics say the reforms he has introduced in the face of outside pressure and political scandal have been piecemeal. In 2013, he established a 25-person independent commission to investigate corruption in the government. But rather quickly, rumors swirled that Cuomo was compromising the commission’s investigations. Eventually, he shut down the commission altogether. A New York Times investigation later found that Cuomo had undermined the panel’s independence from the start by, as the Times reported, “objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.”
But the arrest and eventual conviction of Silver and Skelos, widely referred to as two of the three “men in the room” who controlled state politics, shocked even the most cynical of New Yorkers and prompted reformers to dub the jarring scandal New York’s “Watergate moment.”
In January of this year, with the convictions of Silver and Skelos still fresh in the public’s mind, Cuomo included a bold set of ethics reforms in his $145 billion state budget proposal. The provisions were lifted straight from the wish list of good-government watchdogs. Cuomo proposed placing strict limits on state legislators’ outside income, stripping convicted legislators of their pensions, and strengthening lobbying disclosure rules.
In this February 25, 2016 file photo, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gets off a recreational vehicle before a rally to raise the minimum wage in Albany, N.Y. New York leaders are once again brushing off questions about ethics reform, despite polls showing overwhelming public dismay at the chronic corruption in New York's Capitol.
He also called for creating a public campaign-financing system and closing the so-called LLC loophole, which allows corporations to secretly funnel huge amounts of money to candidates through limited liability companies. The loophole, which allows a clear path around state contribution limits, has given special interests like the real estate industry an expansive avenue for political influence in Albany.
Several of the proposals took aim at the types of activities that had led to corruption charges against Silver and Skelos, including the lucrative opportunities that legislators enjoy to earn outside income and to receive huge campaign contributions from LLCs.
“These ethics reforms are important. Especially considering the context of the past year,” Cuomo declared in his State of the State speech on January 13. “We have to remember the people we serve, and it’s our responsibility to give them the government that they deserve.”
Reform advocates had publicly applauded Cuomo’s anti-corruption platform, but say privately that they weren’t expecting much from the budget deal—or in the 2016 legislative session for that matter.
“There never was a deal,” Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for New York’s League of Women Voters, told the Prospect. “The governor has done this before. He puts [ethics reform] in the budget but, as far as I can tell, he never had any intention to make this stick in any way. He went across the state for the minimum wage, but never once mentioned ethics.”
In response to a request for comment from the Prospect, Cuomo’s office pointed to comments he made in mid-March. "After the budget, you still have April, May, June, because the session goes until June and my opinion is nobody should leave Albany and end the session unless we at least do the pension forfeiture bill, the LLC loopholes, because I just think that would be inexplicable to the people of this state and the legislators are smart people. They know they go back and they run for election,” Cuomo said.
The ethics reform process itself has drawn allegations of inherent conflicts of interest. Cuomo is the largest recipient of LLC contributions, many of them reportedly from high-dollar real estate donors. Many Republican members of the legislature make large incomes outside public office and, critics say, don’t want to impose limits on their own wealth. Democrats in the Assembly also stand accused of protecting the pensions of legislators who’ve been convicted of corruption, which includes many prominent leaders of their party. It’s not the first time politicians have resisted acting against their own self-interest.
In the roughly three months between the time Cuomo proposed his budget, and when a deal was struck, the governor was already managing expectations about the likelihood of comprehensive ethics reform. In February, he started vocally touting his support for a $15 statewide minimum, but watchdogs say he became much quieter on ethics. However, he publicly maintained that he was still committed to reform.
“I don't know how I could have been any louder on ethics than I was in my State of the State and I don't know how I could have been any stronger in statements I've made since the scandals than I've been,” Cuomo told reporters. “And I don't know how I could have been any more aggressive in my proposals.”
Former New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, center, leaves court, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in New York.
But his resistance to pushing his ethics overhaul after his State of the State address sent the reform community a different message. “In previous years the way he's allocated the might of his bully pulpit has been a good barometer for what issues will gain traction and which ones will fall to the wayside,” Jimmy Vielkind presciently wrote for Capital New York.
By mid-March, with two weeks before the budget deadline, Cuomo said ethics most likely wouldn’t be included in a deal and placed the blame on the legislature, where both chambers had proposed budgets without comprehensive ethics reform. The Democratic Assembly was resistant to the idea of pension forfeiture, and the Republican Senate didn’t want to place limits on outside income.
“It’s clear to me that they don’t intend to pass a robust ethics package in the budget,” Cuomo told reporters in March.
The political drama stuck to a script that, to reform advocates, was becoming familiar. “In Albany, this is how the stage gets set for each legislative house to praise itself and to blame the other for the failure, yet again, of meaningful reform, and for Mr. Cuomo to blame them both,” The New York Times editorial board declared.
Reform advocates now say state leaders may have missed their last chance. If Cuomo had truly wanted his proposed ethics reform in the budget, they say, he could have gotten it. In New York, the governor’s strongest political lever each year is the budget deal because in addition to his bully pulpit, the governor controls the purse strings on local aid to schools and hospitals, and major capital improvements on things like transportation and infrastructure.
And Cuomo has never hesitated to pull those strings. Reform advocates point to the state minimum wage as an example. Not too long ago, Cuomo was resistant to raising the state’s wage minimum. However, under mounting pressure from unions and from the national Fight for $15 movement, he reversed course to back a $15 minimum for New York City’s fast-food workers, for state employees, and eventually, for workers throughout the state. Once committed, Cuomo convinced a Republican senate that has long been hostile towards a minimum wage hike to strike a deal in its favor.
“It shows that he does seize opportunities where he can be seen as someone who comes in and takes an issue to victory,” says Dadey, of Citizens Union. “That shows how astute and effective a political player our governor is.”
Dadey and his allies wonder whether Cuomo is merely paying lip service to ethics reform and has no intention of trying to thread the needle to reach a deal with the legislature. But reform advocates acknowledge that the failure of reform does not rest entirely on Cuomo’s shoulders.
In this Monday, March 31, 2014, file photo, members of the Assembly debate budget bills at the Capitol in Albany, New York.
“He can’t force the legislature to do something they won’t do—especially with something like ethics, which will have a direct impact on them. In that sense, to say it’s all the governor’s fault is simplistic,” says Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “On the other hand, he has huge power. Certainly, this year he did not fight for it the way a lot of reformers had hoped. This is a political calculation on his part on whether it’s worth fighting for something you may lose.”
The pathway for passing ethics reform before the legislative session ends in June is narrow, but a glimmer of hope remains for ethics advocates.
On the same day as next week’s presidential primary elections in New York, there are also special elections to fill the seats left vacant by Silver in Manhattan and Skelos in Long Island. With the Republican majority in the Senate hanging by one seat, the race to succeed Skelos has become a heated political battle. Democrats tapped Assemblyman Todd Kaminski to run on a campaign built around a pro-reform agenda while Republicans chose an “outsider” unconnected with the tainted Albany political machine. Reformers liken the race to a referendum on state corruption, and say that if Kaminski wins it could provide a new impetus for ethics reform.
Some say Cuomo may use a pending bill to increase legislative pay as a bargaining chip to push ethics reforms. The legislature has been quietly gunning for a raise for years and Cuomo threatened during negotiations in March to withhold a raise if the legislature failed to pass the budget before its deadline. If the raise comes up for consideration this session it’s possible that Cuomo could demand ethics concessions. Still, that would likely result in minor reforms at best.
“The muscle memory of Albany will be to come up with a lot of tiny proposals and then herald that as historic reform,” says Horner of New York PIRG.
If the legislature fails to take up reform this session, proponents will try to make their case on the campaign trail in the lead up to the November elections. With public outrage at corruption boiling over, activist groups are primed to dedicate resources getting pro-reform candidates elected and making anti-corruption legislation a top priority.
One big question is whether Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney who charged Silver and Skelos, will announce another string of investigations. Coming off the recent convictions, more federal investigations would create such a spectacle that the legislature would be forced to pass something, says the League of Women Voters’ Bartoletti.
Cuomo has said that ethics reform will be his first priority after the budget. That remains to be seen. His failure to push very hard to include his provisions in the budget deal disillusioned good-government activists, who call into question his willingness to make substantial reform a top priority for his administration.
“Politics in Albany is a very high-stakes poker game with very little hint to what hand you’re holding and what deals you’ll make. This is more true this year than it ever has been,” says Dadey. “This will happen if he wants it to happen. If he fails in getting this done, it will be a huge black mark on his legacy.”