Muted support for ethics, voting reforms in Cuomo’s State of the State

Darren McGee/Office of the Governor

State lawmakers and officers stood and cheered for bail reform, they roared approval for suing the federal government over “double taxation,” and they hurrahed just about any mention of pro-union initiatives. But brief mention of ethics and voting reform garnered only tepid applause from the state’s most powerful men and women, gathered to hear Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address on Wednesday.

And good government groups weren’t thrilled, either.

“We weren’t super impressed with what he said today,” said Jennifer Wilson, legislative director for League of Women Voters New York State, noting that the governor made only passing mention of ethics and campaign finance reforms, and made no mention of government contracting reform being championed by a coalition of good government groups.

Despite a raft of politically tricky initiatives pushed through by the governor, Wilson and other reform advocates note, year after year, these critical reforms are left on the cutting room floor.

“For some reason, voting and ethics is just left is the lurch and never gets taken seriously,” Wilson said.

The governor, meanwhile, proudly touted his record on the issue in his speech.

“I know the Legislature feels we have done much on ethics reform, and they are right,” Cuomo said. “But we must do more anyway.”

Good government groups balked at the idea that Albany had made such progress.

In the governor’s 90-minute speech, just over one minute was spent rehashing ethics and campaign finance proposals and another minute was devoted to a proposal for reporting requirements for political ads on social media.

A lackluster devotion to ethics and voting reform is the most persistent hurdle to solving endemic corruption in the state capital, reform advocates say. Regardless, it’s an issue that will be paraded across the front pages of newspapers this election year in Albany. In 2018, New Yorkers will witness five corruption trials, two involving officials linked to the governor and two retrials – Sheldon Silver in April and Dean Skelos in June – implicating the capital’s most senior legislative offices. Another, Steve Pigeon, is an Albany insider accused of bribery, conspiracy and wire fraud in connection with elections in western New York.

Could the high-profile trials spur legislators into action this year? Reform advocates argue argue that corruption will be at the forefront of the public consciousness this year, with the potential to drive reform.

In the State of the State policy book released on Wednesday, Cuomo outlined an ethics and voting reform agenda nearly identical to last year’s, with the addition of an election cyber security and reporting requirement for online political advertising.

Under the banner of “Advancing the Democracy Agenda,” the governor’s 14-point plan lays out a familiar suite of reforms, including ethics proposals that “close the LLC loophole” in political spending, procurement reform that would more closely monitor how state contracts are awarded and voting reforms like same-day voter registration and early voting.

Advocates had anticipated more of the same, but were disappointed with the lack of attention and detail.

While the governor piled 13 ethics and voting reform initiatives into last year’s State of the State Book, not one became a reality, at least as not as envisioned, and many subsequently re-appeared on this year’s agenda in an updated list of 14.

“Increasingly, it’s a black mark on his tenure, not on the culture of Albany,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “He inherited a system that he failed to fix.”

With the series of high-profile indictments for malfeasance during Cuomo’s tenure, Horner said, the revelations may not mean things have gotten worse, but “certainly, whatever ails Albany’s ethics has not been remedied by this governor.”

The reason, he believes, is that fighting corruption is less important to Cuomo than other initiatives he appears to more readily spend his political capital on, like same-sex marriage and a $15 minimum wage – among signature accomplishments that Cuomo highlighted by having dozens of guests who benefitted from the laws.

“I think if he had a magic wand, he’d do it,” Horner said of the governor’s desire to pass comprehensive ethics reform. “But in the political triage of legislative dealmaking, I assume he figures the bang is not worth the buck.”

However, others say the fact that the governor includes reform proposals in his agenda at all deserves praise.

“I give him credit, genuine credit for always putting this on the table, having it in the mix,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy consultant at good government group Reinvent Albany. Governors in the not-so-distant past didn’t even bother to do that, Camarda said. “Where he’s come up short is with the delivery. I think it’s easy to look back at the last couple years and say he hasn’t delivered on these reform items, which he has not."

Robert Freeman, executive director for the New York Department of State’s Committee on Open Government for the last 40 years, said that the governor’s 2017 State of the State government reform proposals “went nowhere, to the best of my knowledge.”

A bright spot in his department, however, was a last-minute bill signed by Cuomo in December to force state agencies to pay Freedom of Information Law requestors’ attorney fees if a judge finds that the government failed to provide the information with no valid justification.

“It amended the law to deal with situation where a government agency engages in what I’ve come to call ‘The Nancy Reagan Response,’ just say no,” Freeman said. “My expectation is that law will encourage agencies to be serious about complying with the Freedom of Information Law.”

Brett Orzechowski, a professor at Utica College and author of a forthcoming book on the Freedom of Information Law, explained that recently-passed FOIL reform was vetoed in 2015 over complaints from the executive that the law needed to cover the state Legislature as well. Even when he did sign the law last month, he registered a protest in the same vein.

That helps reveal, Orzechowski said, how many reforms are tangled in a morass of Albany power players’ political self-interest, leading to unlikely bureaucratic arrangements, such as an ethics agency that is not subject to transparency laws.

“(The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics) is exempt from FOIL. That doesn’t happen,” Orzechowski said, comparing the state’s opaque accountability institution to its more transparent counterparts in other states. “Here’s a body that’s put into place to investigate corruption or serve as the underlying ethics agency in New York state and it’s not fully in step with other measures like FOIL. Can it be? Absolutely. Is there an appetite for that? I’m not sure.”

It’s not that reform is not possible in Albany, reformers say. It’s whether or not the capital’s power brokers can be persuaded to prioritize it. In other words, it’s a question of pressure.

“I do think the trials will put pressure on the governor to act,” said Camarda. “I do think that the legislature will be emboldened.”

Camarda and others are advocating for a “deal database” to track all economic development contracts, and he expects to see reform in that area, a sensitive one for Cuomo – bid rigging.

Two corruption trials involving close associates of the governor are a case study in bid rigging. Joe Percoco, the former executive deputy secretary to the governor, is set to be tried later this month, for allegedly taking $315,000 in bribes from companies with business before the state. Former State University of New York Polytechnic Institute head Alain Kaloyeros’ trial is set for June, allegedly for his involvement in a fraud and bribery scheme in connection with the governor’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative. Todd Howe, a lobbyist with ties to Cuomo and his father, helped arrange the deals and is the government’s star witness.

Despite optimism that the trials may goad reform from reluctant leaders, several reformers were skeptical that the political force required to produce reform will originate from the governor’s office.

“There are possibilities (for reform) but it’s going to hinge on external forces not internal forces,” said Horner, citing possible pressure on incumbents from reform-minded challengers in the 2018 state Senate and Assembly elections. “When you have so many cases going on at the same time, anything is possible. I think voter anger coupled with something high-profile … there’s too much happening for it not to have an effect on the system.”

The governor’s rhetoric suggests he believes he can follow through.

“Don’t tell me we can’t do it,” Cuomo said of his broader State of the State agenda in the closing moments of his speech. “There’s nothing we’ve put our mind to that we can’t accomplish.”