Heastie, Cuomo, & Flanagan (l-r) in 2015 (photo via The Governor's Office)
The first Sunshine Week following the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos got off to an inauspicious start Monday as representatives of the state's major good government groups gathered in Albany to give their evaluation of the ethics reforms put forward in the one-house budgets released by the Assembly and Senate majorities over the weekend.
"Unfortunately with a late Friday release what we're seeing is what I've begun to call 'The Albany Shuffle,'" said Susan Lerner of Common Cause NY. "Issues addressed with bills that aren't quite strong enough, that have a low probability of making it into law. What we need now and what we've been saying quite consistently is there is a crisis of corruption, this is the moment for a robust ethics package, and that we need the governor to be asserting his leadership bringing both houses of the Legislature together on a strong comprehensive ethics package."
Sunshine Week is supposed to be a celebration and examination of transparency and openness in government. It arrives in Albany this year for one of the most secretive and restrictive budget processes in recent memory. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan have carried out clandestine budget negotiations with an efficiency rarely seen. Usually reporters are tipped to budget meetings, proposals are floated in the press, and press conferences held to update the public on progress. This year the information has largely dried up and Cuomo hasn't held a second floor press conference since late June of last year.
"It's as dark a process as I've ever seen," Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group told Gotham Gazette.
While Cuomo included ethics reforms in his budget he hasn't mentioned reform since without direct provocation by reporters. The Assembly majority released an ethics reform plan on Friday and the Senate majority appears to have no interest in new reforms to prevent or punish corruption, other than a pension forfeiture measure.
The Cuomo administration lashed out at good government groups last week after they called on the governor to hold public meetings with legislative leaders on ethics reform. Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said that there would be further discussion of ethics reform while also looking at who funds good government groups and whether they are actually "shadow lobbyists."
Horner said he believes that state leaders are working together to squash reform talk in hopes that public interest wanes. He also believes they are misjudging the impact of the Skelos and Silver convictions. "No public hearings, no public input around the biggest scandals that have rocked Albany in generations, and so it's sort of a stunning rebuke not only for the public's right to know, but also for Sunshine Week that this is what we are talking about - Albany being closed to public scrutiny and what may be a colossal failure by Albany's political establishment to deal with the biggest issues facing state government."
On Monday, good government groups didn't have anything to evaluate when it came to the Senate's budget proposal because it does not contain any ethics reform proposals.
"This week is Sunshine Week, which is the national celebration of openness in government," said Horner. "In Albany, unfortunately, the curtains are tightly drawn in terms of what the public can see in [government] deliberations."
Horner, Lerner, and other government reform group representatives criticized the Assembly plan as having no particular logic. One measure included in the Assembly budget restricts legislators' outside income to 40 percent of a state Supreme Court judge's salary, which comes to about $70,000. Legislators currently earn $79,500 per year. Gov. Cuomo proposed a bill earlier this year restricting outside income to 15 percent of that salary - Cuomo's plan is drawn from the current Congressional model.
The Assembly also proposed a law that would restrict lawyer-legislators from simply earning money by having their name at a law firm, requiring them to prove they actually do casework. Horner said that the language of the law is so vague it is hard to tell who would judge what was legitimate work for a law firm and how it would be enforced. Heastie told reporters on Friday that his conference hadn't quite figured out enforcement yet.
Lerner and Horner both said they believe that the governor and legislative leaders will play the "blame game" on ethics, without reaching any consensus. Cuomo will blame the Legislature for proposing weaker measures than he did, or for not supporting reform at all, and both houses of the legislature will blame each other.
Early Monday rank-and-file lawmakers were boning up on their house budgets as the majorities moved swiftly to vote on the plans. Many expect that a vote on the overall budget could come by the end of the week, delivering an early spending plan - the deadline is the end of the month. However, if that does come to pass many legislators expect contentious issues like ethics reform, a minimum wage hike, and paid family leave to be excluded, pushed to the legislative session to follow the budget.
A deal by the end of the week would also mean that the "three men in a room" - Democrats Cuomo and Heastie and Flanagan, a Republican - would have quickly hammered out their differences in typical Albany fashion. Asked on Friday by Gotham Gazette about how many negotiation sessions the three had had, Heastie was evasive, saying there had been meetings, but only on broad strokes. He indicated that specific discussions would heat up once the two chambers passed their one-house budgets. Heastie did give a speech in New York City on Friday and take more than 45 minutes of questions from reporters.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins criticized the budget process before her house voted on the Republican-crafted, one-house bill. "Today on the first day of Sunshine Week, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that this year's budget process has taken a step back in transparency," she said. "The much maligned 'three men in the room' process seems to have been replaced by a more secretive format of covert meetings and phone calls shielded from the press and public. I hope that in the remaining time left we can open up this process and allow all New Yorkers to see what we are doing on their behalf."
Assembly Republicans expressed horror that the Democrats' reform plans weren't stronger and didn't address a multitude of gripes they have with how power is allocated in the chamber. Senate Democrats decried the lack of any reforms in the Republican budget. Both majorities said there would be more discussion of ethics - Assembly Democrats say it will come during budget negotiations, Senate Republicans insist it will be after.
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette