New York could end session without addressing corruption

AP News
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Posted: Jun 12, 2016 12:58 PM
New York could end session without addressing corruption

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York lawmakers are nearing the end of their 2016 session and it's looking like they will once again fail to address, in any significant way, the wave of corruption that has made Albany one of the nation's most crooked state capitals.

So many lawmakers have been forced from office for alleged misconduct or crimes — including the former Assembly speaker and Senate leader in just the past year — that government reform advocates have taken to calling this Albany's "Watergate moment."

"But all Albany apparently is willing to do is write a parking ticket to the Watergate burglars because they were double-parked," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Instead, lawmakers are divided even on small reforms. A proposal to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that, if passed, would allow judges to strip the pensions of corrupt lawmakers still hasn't passed, despite support in both chambers. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed tighter campaign finance rules and limits on lawmakers' outside income, but they have little serious support in the Legislature.

Even Cuomo appears resigned.

"I've threatened them, cajoled them, tried to charm them, told them jokes," Cuomo said of the Legislature. "They do not want to pass ethics reform."

While plenty of other states have seen governors and top leaders ousted by scandal, few can rival New York when it comes to the scope of the problem. More than 30 lawmakers have left office facing allegations of criminal or ethical wrongdoing since 2000 — including ones who sexually harassed female staffers, arranged jobs for relatives, lied about their U.S. citizenship or even solicited bribes from a carnival promoter.

In just the past year, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and ex-Senate Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, were both convicted on unrelated federal corruption charges.

New York voters tell pollsters that corruption is a top issue but voter turnout rates here remain low — one possible explanation for why elected leaders seem to feel little pressure to tackle big reforms.

Leaders of both chambers are now working to find a compromise on a constitutional amendment regarding legislative pensions. A 2011 law allows judges to strip pensions from convicted lawmakers, but it doesn't apply to lawmakers elected before that bill was passed. So far, the Assembly and Senate cannot agree on wording for the referendum needed to apply the law to all lawmakers.

"We will not abandon our efforts," Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said of the negotiations with the Senate. "We hope that our colleagues in government will join us in acting on these important issues."

With just days left in the session, Cuomo introduced a new option: a plan to clarify the rules regarding the relationship between supposedly independent political groups and candidates. The move is in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which prohibits limits on the campaign spending by outside groups. Critics of the decision say it opens the door to allowing such groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of candidates.

So what are lawmakers working on in the final days of the session? Combating heroin addiction, setting regulations for daily fantasy sports and rules allowing Uber to expand upstate are all expected to get a vote, along with hundreds of minor bills. Lawmakers also plan to vote on extending Mayor Bill de Blasio's control over New York City public schools, though there is disagreement about how long of an extension should be granted.

Senate Leader John Flanagan, R-Long Island, insists top lawmakers are talking about ways to address corruption as they work toward their planned adjournment on Thursday or Friday. But with lawmakers eager to return home to begin campaigning for re-election this fall, don't look for them to work overtime this year to address ethics.

Asked on public radio Wednesday to estimate the likelihood that lawmakers would stay late this year, Flanagan was succinct.

"Zero," he said.