Major Ethics Reform Package Not Focus of Recent State Budget Negotiations

Despite the convictions last year of the leaders of both houses of the state legislature, it seems unlikely that any major ethics reform package will pass as part of the state budget, which is due at the end of the month. State House Reporter Zack Fink explains.

When Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested early last year, it was clearly an indication that Albany had a serious corruption problem.

A few months later, State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was also arrested, and both he and Silver were convicted of federal corruption late last year.

But instead of making ethics reform a top priority this year, so far there has been very little discussion of actually including the issue in this year's budget.

"The time for the budget is short, but the time until the end of session is long, and I consider this a major priority," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said March 15.

Last week, the Senate and the Assembly passed what is known as their one-house budgets, which put priorities for the state budget on the table for negotiation. The Senate had virtually no ethics proposals, and the Assembly had some that were criticized for being weak.

"The Assembly proposal — and I'm sure they all debated it and discussed it in secret behind closed doors, but it is also a way to deflect criticism that they didn't do anything," said Blair Horner of the non-profit New York Public Interest Research Group.

The Assembly ethics plan would force lawmakers who earn outside income at law firms to perform actual legal work.

Silver was convicted of receiving kickbacks, without doing any actual work for two law firms.

But some say the Assembly proposal isn't very well thought out.

"If you're going to get a certain percentage of a settlement from a case, you need to be able to show that you actually had hours working on that case," said new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Reporter: And who would you report that to? Who would you list that with?

Heastie: We haven't really looked that far.

Cuomo has been pushing hard for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and a paid family leave program, which appear to be his top priorities.

"It's as difficult a budget season as I've gone through, to tell you the truth," the governor said March 18.

The truth is Cuomo and the legislature have passed some kind of ethics reform three out of the five years since Cuomo took office. Critics would argue they were merely cosmetic in nature, and clearly they didn't do enough to prevent the unprecedented corruption cases we saw just last year.

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