ALBANY – With the clock ticking on state budget talks, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on Wednesday unveiled a series of changes they’ve agreed to implement in what is becoming a near-annual stab at improving the image of Albany lawmakers when it comes to ethics.
The plans were hailed by Cuomo as historic, just as past efforts were. But they were dismissed by one watchdog group as a “weak package.”
Officials said the deal does not include a quid pro quo in which Cuomo gets an ethics package in return for a legislative pay hike, something Assembly Democrats have sought for years. However, the governor, indicated his plan to create a commission to study the pay levels of lawmakers and agency heads – which would lead to a pay increase – is expected in the final budget.
Heastie also dismissed talk by some lawmakers that Cuomo got him to agree to the ethics package in return for dropping his linkage of a big state aid hike for schools with new education policies, such as strengthening the teacher evaluation system.
“This is only about ethics. We still have discussions about education and everything else in the budget,” Heastie said.
Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said he was “shocked” that Cuomo’s deal with Assembly Democrats does not include more ethics coverage of Cuomo and his executive branch.
He said the Senate GOP also wants, as is available now for the Legislature, regular releases of public information about such things as state-funded travel expenses for Cuomo and his staff and inclusion of domestic partners, not just spouses, in annual financial disclosure forms; Cuomo is not married but lives with television food show host Sandra Lee.
Most New Yorkers would appear to agree with Skelos; a new poll released this morning shows 64 percent of New Yorkers believe disclosure of financial information about public officials should include both spouses, as now required, and live-in partners.
Skelos dismissed the Cuomo-Heastie proposal because it does not have Senate Republicans on board. He suggested budget talks are not going well right now. “If there’s a late budget, it’s going to be because of the governor,’’ Skelos said of the looming March 31 deadline for an on-time budget.
After federal corruption charges were brought against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Cuomo stepped up efforts to get another series of changes to the state’s ethics law.
In the non-binding, two-way deal announced Wednesday, Cuomo and Heastie want to require more disclosure of outside income activities of lawmakers. The arrangement would not limit outside incomes.
For those who are lawyers on the side, it would mean giving up client names, except in matrimonial or custody cases, in matters in which lawmakers earn more than $5,000 apiece from a client.
Lawmakers working in one of the professions licensed by the Department of Education – which licenses everyone from interior designers and massage therapists to pharmacists, dentists and psychologists – also would have to reveal how they made their money and their clients’ names. However, there are exclusions for health care and mental health professions, which would cut out most of the covered professions.
The deal does not touch one of the most-criticized areas of the state’s campaign finance laws: the loophole that allows wealthy individuals to create numerous limited liability corporations as a way to bypass contribution limits. Instead, Cuomo and Heastie would impose some additional limits on personal expenditure bans involving campaign funds.
The arrangement between Cuomo and Heastie also did not agree to end the sometimes-abused per-diem system in which lawmakers get daily payments to cover food and housing, whether or not they even spend anything. Instead, Heastie said he envisions a card-swipe system that lawmakers will have to use to prove, for instance, that they are in Albany on non-session days doing state work. Watchdog groups had been pushing to end the current practice.
Cuomo sought to portray the arrangement, if it were to become law, as a major accomplishment that he said would give New York the nation’s toughest set of ethics laws.
“This is a day of progress and good news,” Cuomo said at the Capitol.
But Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, dismissed the non-binding arrangement as a minimalist piece of work. “For all of the noise about reform, it’s a lot of talk and very little action,” he said. Horner said marginal changes to the state’s ethics laws are becoming too common.
“Once again, the Albany political elites are playing Lucy to the public’s Charlie Brown. They’re saying we’ll really hold the football this time. We’ll really do ethics reform. It’s a weak package, at best,” he said, noting how everyone from Congress to legislators in Alaska would still have stricter ethics law than the plan Cuomo and Heastie unveiled through a press release.