Just a month after juries convicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former State Senate Leader Dean Skelos on federal corruption charges, Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined several proposals to end the ongoing ethics problems in the state capitol.
Mr. Cuomo spent most of his State of the State address in Albany boasting about what he saw as his successes, but he acknowledged that many New Yorkers still hold a dim view of state government. He seemed to suggest that seeing two of the state’s most powerful men convicted of fraud and extortion had exacerbated the problem, and touched on several remedies.
“Recent acts have undermined the public’s trust in government. Public trust is essential for government to function at the level we need,” he said. “These ethics reforms are important, especially considering the context of the past year. We have to remember the people we serve, and that it’s our responsibility to give them the government they deserve.”
The governor said his executive budget submitted to the State Legislature will include the adoption of the U.S. Congress’s rules for outside income: no more than 15 percent of their legislative salary. He also demanded the closing of the so-called “LLC loophole,” which presently permits donors to circumvent contribution limits by setting up shell companies.
The governor’s budget will also include a system for publicly financing campaigns so as to level the playing field between upstarts and well-funded incumbents. And it will require businesses soliciting state contracts, as well as political consultants who work for both politicians and private entities, to register as lobbyists.
Most of these proposals have been batted around for years—including by Mr. Cuomo—without coming near realization. But the governor argued the recent trials have given the ideas a renewed urgency.
“The time for discussion and debate has passed. The time has come for action,” he said, adding he would sign the bills “the very same day” they are passed. “This is healthier for our democracy and healthier for our government.”
Mr. Cuomo himself has raised millions of campaign dollars by exploiting the LLC loophole, including from luxury developer Glenwood Management, which played a high-profile role in both the Silver and Skelos trials. When asked why he would not return the money, the governor insisted such donations do not influence his decisions—so it is unclear why he considers closing the loophole necessary.
The Republican-run State Senate has long resisted closing the loophole and using taxpayer dollars to subsidize political campaigns.
The governor further demanded today that the legislature pass a law stripping officials convicted of corruption of their pensions—a measure that the State Senate has passed, but the Democrat-dominated Assembly has not. Both Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos have applied for their plush publicly-funded retirement plans.
“Anything else shows disrespect for the rule of law, and for the taxpayer,” Mr. Cuomo said.
He also insisted that any expansion of the Freedom of Information Law, which grants the public access to the internal documents of the government, cover the State Legislature. The governor recently vetoed a bill that would have opened his office up to greater disclosure, arguing that it unfairly left out the Assembly and State Senate.
“If you pass a FOIL bill, include yourself, I will sign it the very same day,” the governor said to applause.
He called for a constitutional convention “to re-engage the public,” and which would not allow elected officials to act as delegates.
Finally, Mr. Cuomo called for universal, automatic voter registration for all people who receive a New York State drivers license. This, he argued, would be the ultimate reform measure because it would make it easier for people to participate in the political process.
“Voter registration should be a presumption, not a hurdle. Let’s flip the paradigm,” he said, adding that people could opt out if they wanted.
The governor has struggled to stay above the welter of allegations that swallowed his colleagues.
In his State of the State address last year, Mr. Cuomo referred to himself, Mr. Skelos and Mr. Silver as “three amigos.” Days later, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s agents arrested Mr. Silver, and Mr. Bharara mocked the phrase in a speech on public corruption. (Mr. Skelos was arrested a few months later.)
On Monday, Mr. Bharara announced there was “insufficient evidence” to charge anyone in the governor’s office with a crime for their tampering with the operations of the anti-corruption Moreland Commission in 2014, or for its unceremonious scuttling just 18 months into its existence.
The prosecutor’s probe into Mr. Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” investment in Western New York development, which has resulted in state funds going to his campaign donors, is still underway.