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Cuomo low-key as he works on speech ; Attends Mass, imposes ethics rules for his staff

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo spent his second day on the job Sunday trying to forge a tone for his fledgling administration while mixing his hours between attending church, imposing new ethics training standards on his staff and coming to reality with the state's financial troubles.

Taking a more measured approach to the opening days of his administration than perhaps other recent governors, Cuomo kept out of public sight Sunday except for attending a morning Mass in a historic Catholic church next to the governor's mansion.

With his first State of the State message scheduled for Wednesday, Cuomo is putting the finishing touches on a speech that, more than any other, serves as a key starting point for what promises to be a bruising, two-year legislative session that begins the same day.

The new governor has said he will unveil Wednesday at least the underpinnings of a plan to deal with $10 billion or more in projected red ink -- not as dire as some recent deficits in New York but made worse by years of big spending in Albany and the upcoming loss of the last couple of years' worth of federal stimulus money for all the states.

The sole announcement Sunday by the new administration focused, like the Spitzer administration four years ago, on government ethics. Cuomo takes office at a time when Albany has been on an ethical roller coaster the past several years, during which time political careers have ended for a number of top state officials and lawmakers.

Cuomo issued an executive order affecting about 300 key employees -- out of a state work force of a couple hundred thousand workers -- that requires participation within three months in an ethics training session offered by the State Commission on Public Integrity.

Officials said the executive order was narrowly written -- affecting just Cuomo's own executive chamber employees, agency commissioners and their counsels and ethics officers -- because of the quick time frame for compliance. The order envisions the training programs being available no later than Jan. 31; sessions must be completed within 60 days.

"Honor and integrity will be a hallmark of this administration, and I am confident that we have assembled a team that reflects that commitment," Cuomo said in a prepared statement.

Despite that, Cuomo said, it is "imperative" that his staff understand New York's ethics rules and laws -- which have become more specific and at the same time also more open to interpretation affecting everything from on-the-job to post-employment activities.

"Top government employees should have no questions, no gray areas and no possibility of confusion regarding what is proper and what is not," Cuomo said.

Ethics training is already available to state employees, though the sessions are not required, said Walter Ayres, a spokesman for the Public Integrity Commission. Only a handful of agencies, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, demand their workers to attend the sessions.

The ethics agency, with a staff of four in its training department, offers both on-line and classroom-type sessions. Ayres said the sessions last anywhere from one to three hours.

>Ethics training varies

The ethics order by Cuomo comes at a time when he is trying to prod the Legislature into backing plans for broader ethics rules. Among them is a plan requiring more disclosure about outside business activities by lawmakers, including a list of their clients if they are in a private law firm. That has been opposed by some lawmakers, notably Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is with a Manhattan trial law firm; they argue the disclosure could be unfair to clients, such as those in matrimonial cases.

The Legislature's ethics training varies between the two houses. In the Senate, said spokesman Scott Reif, all members and staff "are expected to understand and follow certain procedures related to legislative ethics and sign a formal document acknowledging such." He said the new Republican majority leader, Dean Skelos, has also provided ethics training to the freshmen GOP senators.

Sisa Moyo, a spokeswoman for Silver, said the Assembly holds mandatory staff and legislator training classes once for every two-year legislative term on ethics, sexual harassment and workplace violence. Interns, she said, are required each year to attend the training sessions.

The state's ethics laws have been tightened over the years, but that has not slowed Albany's run-ins with corruption cases. Indeed, laws on the books have not made Cuomo's job of attracting people to join his administration any easier, sources say.

Besides concerns over Albany's sour image and the state's ongoing fiscal problems, the ethics laws -- particularly bans of up to a lifetime on appearing before state agencies for some officials going into the private sector -- present a challenge for any New York governor trying to grab top talent from outside government, especially those who work for a private firm that has any dealings with the state.

>Bishop's message

Cuomo started his day with his three daughters and girlfriend Sandra Lee in Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Only about 100 people attended the Mass in the sprawling cathedral located a couple of blocks from the Capitol and, for Cuomo, just a brief walk from the governor's mansion next door.

"We know they over the next four years will be deeply immersed in the work of evangelism by bringing about the transformation of our state and our society. And we assure them of our prayers, of our support and of our best wishes for challenges they will face," Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard said of Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy during his homily.

After the service, Duffy said, "The one thing I took away is that perhaps if the churches were filled up there would be less problems in Albany."

>Budget challenge

While Cuomo in his first two days has taken some symbolic and tangible moves to provide a bit more sunshine on Albany, his major challenge is the state budget. He still has a month to go before submission of his 2011 budget plan, though officials are discussing some ways to get a head start on reducing some of the red ink -- an exercise in which the Legislature refused to engage former Gov. David A. Paterson during his final weeks in office.

Cuomo's first budget will be especially scrutinized because he has pledged not to raise taxes or engage in Albany's typical fiscal sleight-of-hand to eliminate the deficit. The red ink for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins April 1, is projected at $9 billion, though a current year deficit of $1 billion or so pushes the total above the $10 billion mark.

The deficit reduction effort in the months ahead promises to hit school districts, hospitals and others across the state that rely on state funding, Cuomo has vowed.

Albany has become deficit-weary. In the past three years, Paterson has noted in his final days in a mix of boast and regret, officials have closed $42 billion worth of total projected deficits.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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