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Cuomo’s opaque style leaves public in the dark

ALBANY – Unlike any governor in recent history, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has institutionalized a new style of policy-making: throw out broad-brush ideas, sprinkle in a few basic details, and wait until the very last minute to propose the legislation for the public and rank-and-file lawmakers to scrutinize.

The governor took that route in January with New York’s new gun-control law, a package of bills hot to the touch when they came off the printing presses and rushed to lawmakers to pass before anyone could read the details.

And he is at it again with a series of ideas he is sprinkling out to address Albany’s corruption.

After the fourth in a series of anti-corruption policy ideas he tossed out on the topic since two downstate lawmakers were arrested on separate corruption charges, Cuomo last week was asked: Where is the legislation and not just press releases?

“I will give you a hint. Normally, when we release bill language before an agreement it means the probability of that bill passing is very, very low … To put forth specifics when you don’t have an agreement, in my experience, polarizes the parties. It makes it harder to come to agreements because you pushed people to their respective corners,’’ Cuomo responded.

To reporters in the room, it sounded like a rare admission by a politician about Albany’s system of closed-door lawmaking. And the admission was coming from a governor who vowed to bring historic levels of transparency to the Capitol.

But Cuomo has made this keep-the-details-elusive style of governing an increasing part of his administration. The one major exception: the state budget. But that is a package of bills he has no choice but to unveil in advance each year, thanks to a document known as the New York State Constitution.

In four months of this year’s legislative session, Cuomo has introduced just one “program’’ bill, the name given to bills authored by the governor’s office and not a legislator. That was the gun bill, slapped together so quickly that even its supporters acknowledge it contained numerous mistakes. (One of those mistakes, ending the sales of magazines holding more than seven rounds, has already been fixed since manufacturers made clear they weren’t going to make New York-specific magazines.)

A day after he gave reporters what he called a “hint’’ that it is perhaps better to cut deals first and then formally introduce the final agreements into bill format, Cuomo suggested he was only kidding, and blamed members of the Legislative Correspondents Association, the group of reporters who cover the Capitol, for not understanding he was just having “fun’’ with them on Tuesday.

“I should have known better than to try to have fun with the LCA at a press conference,’’ he said on The Capitol Pressroom, a public radio show and one of the few outlets he regularly calls in to to get his views out or perhaps clear up misperceptions about his ideas.

“I was poking at the point that there are proposals made, and proposed bills released. Sometimes it’s more about posturing and issuing a press release than a bona fide legislative proposal that is going to be pursued in good faith,’’ Cuomo told the radio interviewer. “There are bills and there are bills. Some bills are for press releases. Some are just posturing. That was the point I was trying to make.”

No laughing matter

If Cuomo was only kidding, at least one government watchdog wasn’t laughing.

Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said Cuomo has a higher percentage of what are known as gubernatorial program bills becoming law than recent governors. But that, he said, is only because Cuomo so often does not release bill language until the governor has reached a deal with legislative leaders. In the interim period, the public is left in the dark, Mahoney said.

There is no doubt that bill introductions can sometimes be public relations stunts. But they are also important for staking out the different positions on an issue so the public can get a precise sense, say, of what Cuomo believes should happen on gun control versus what Senate Republicans might want.

Lack of transparency

The way Cuomo is doing it is a problem for the public, Mahoney believes.

“As you saw with the gun bill, many of these involve complicated issues. Something like campaign finance has a million different moving parts where some flawed language might negate its effects,’’ he said of new plans, again without specifics from Cuomo, about changing the state’s campaign finance laws that might include taxpayer funding of politicians’ expenses spent running for office.

For Mahoney, it comes down to a simple theory of government: transparency. That was something Cuomo said on the 2010 campaign trail he’d be better at than anyone else in New York history.

“The public should have a chance to weigh in on legislation. If it’s introduced and made available 15 minutes before voting starts, that’s not an option,’’ Mahoney said.

In the past two weeks, Cuomo has offered up four ideas to deal with Albany’s corruption problems, including creating a new enforcement unit – headed by someone he would appoint – to look into campaign finance abuses by politicians. A Cuomo administration official said the legislation describing the details of those plans would come out after Cuomo has unveiled other aspects of his clean-up Albany campaign. When would that be?

The official could not say.

The numbers tell the story. Mahoney looked at program bill introductions. His method counts the total number introduced, so in the case of this year’s gun bill, that was counted as two bills because it was introduced in both the Assembly and Senate.

By that method, Cuomo’s two bills this year follows 58 last year and 45 in 2011 during his first year in office.

Former Gov. David Paterson had 237 program bills in 2010 and 464 in 2009, while Gov. Eliot Spitzer had 69 in his first year in office in 2007.

In his final three years in office, former Gov. George Pataki averaged 99 bill introductions per year.

Vague questions

Consider the abortion issue for a look at Cuomo’s style.

In the 224-page campaign booklet he released in 2010, Cuomo spent one paragraph discussing his view to “vigorously protect a woman’s right to choose,” and said he would push for passage of Spitzer’s Reproductive Health Act.

The issue did not arise again until this year, when Cuomo in January said he would push to increase protections for abortion rights. But he has not released what his plan would be, and suggested it would be different from the Spitzer proposal. It has left pollsters asking vague questions that end up showing support for Cuomo’s plan, even though no one knows the specifics.

“If the governor wants to talk about cleaning up the political process, then he needs to begin with transparency in his own office,’’ said the Rev. Jason McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, which opposes further abortion protections.

The transparency problem stretches from lack of real-time details about Cuomo’s meeting schedule – some governors provide daily reports of their private meetings – to the failure by the Cuomo-dominated state ethics agency to require the governor’s live-in girlfriend, Food Network host Sandra Lee, to disclose her finances like spouses must even though the agency two weeks ago said Lee can, as a domestic partner of the governor, fly for free on state aircraft with the governor to official events, he said.

On the abortion measure, McGuire said Cuomo has offered no details for a reason.

“I think the bottom line is the governor doesn’t know. He’s rudderless as he faces stiff opposition and he doesn’t actually have a bill,’’ McGuire said.

Abortion rights groups, though, say Cuomo is committed to pressing the issue.

“We have every indication that the goal is really to align our state laws with Roe v. Wade and to achieve clarity in our state law so it is really up to date,’’ said Andrea Miller, president of NARAL Pro-Choice New York, whose group is backing Cuomo’s abortion rights push that would, backers say, codify into state law abortion access rights if Roe v. Wade is ever overturned.

Asked if she would encourage Cuomo to release a bill, Miller said, “We’re certainly eager to reach a point where the time is right to have legislation that people can look at.’’