January 27, 2014
Continuing his efforts to help New York shake its image as a scandalous and corruption-ridden state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo included a number of ethics reforms in his Executive Budget proposal aimed at restoring the public’s trust in government and strengthening campaign finance laws.
Among the proposals, the governor’s budget includes enacting a publicly funded campaign finance system and allocating $5.3 million for an independent investigative office working within the jurisdiction of the state Board of Elections.
After touting the many accomplishments during his first three years as governor, Cuomo said ethics reform “is the one negative [the public] hear over and over because it is a drip, drip, drip of these negative, one-off stories. And it has to be addressed. Because what ethics reform says to the people of the State of New York is ‘I get it, I get that that is wrong and that’s not me and I don’t tolerate it.'”
“We are going to put a system in place that makes sure that if and when these things happen again, there will be a system to take care of it,” Cuomo said.
Following a rash of scandals, the governor has made ethics reforms one of his top priorities — introducing a comprehensive ethics reform package near the end of last year’s session that was a non-starter with the Legislature.
After state lawmakers failed to act on the reform bill, Cuomo convened a Moreland Act Commission to investigate corruption in state government. The commission quickly caused tension between legislative leaders and the governor, as many state lawmakers claimed the commission did not have the power to investigate the Legislature and refuted the commission’s ability to issue subpoenas detailing legislators’ outside business dealings.
Continuing to push for the reforms he says are necessary to restore public trust, the governor hopes to implement a campaign finance system modeled after the system used in New York City — with public contributions of up to $175 are matched by the state $6 to $1. Should a public financing system be implemented, Senate and Assembly candidates will be able to enroll in the program beginning in 2016 and candidates for statewide office in 2018. Enrolling in the program will be voluntary.
Karen Scharff, the executive director for Citizen Action NY, said enacting a public campaign finance system that would transform New York’s campaign finance system — from one that is dependent on large donations from outside interests to one that is dependent on the public and small donors — would correct the state’s “pay to play culture that has really become embedded in our state government.”
According to the Governor’s Office, New York state is last in the nation in public funding for political campaigns, meaning campaigns for office in the Empire State rely heavily on the donations from outside special interests.
In addition to proposing publicly financed campaigns, the governor also proposed a new income tax form that gives taxpayers the option to donate to a new Campaign Finance Fund; restricting the use of campaign funds for a candidates’ personal use and strengthening disclosure requirements.
Cuomo also proposed establishing limits on campaign contributions; limiting contributions to party housekeeping accounts to $25,000 each year and limiting to $500 the amount that party committees can transfer per contributor to candidates. The reforms also include limiting corporate contributions to $1,000 per year and closing limited liability company loophole by treating LLCs as corporations and not individuals. Candidates who opt into the public campaign finance system will have even lower contribution limits, although the specific limits were not included.
Calls to the Governor’s Office inquiring what those limits would be were not returned.
Bill Mahoney, research coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said including the ethics reforms in the budget is a good start because it will not allow Senate Republicans to avoid the discussion of publicly financed campaigns as he says they have for many years.
“We’ve seen such an amazing variety of scandals in recent years that there is no silver bullet that can really fix New York’s Legislature and make it work completely going forward,” Mahoney said. “So public financing needs to be addressed along with issues such as ethics reform to make sure that we have really have the best feasible system.”
Mahoney also called it troubling that the governor has created the new enforcement agency within the Board of Elections, criticizing that agency for its inability to investigate Election Law violations in the past, allowing the LLC loophole and allowing Super PACs to spend money without proper disclosure.
The proposed Independent Division of Election Law Enforcement would be under the watch of a Chief Enforcement Officer, appointed by the governor, and would add 11 new staff members. Last year, the Moreland Commission criticized the state BOE for failing to properly enforce campaign and election laws.
The governor’s budget proposal also includes strengthening a number of state anti-bribery laws including making it a misdemeanor for failing to report public corruption; allowing prosecutors to prove only that a person paying a bribe intended to influence an official or the person receiving the bribe intended to be influenced; increased penalties for official misconduct and a lifetime government ban for any official convicted of public corruption.
Under the proposed reforms, officials would also be required to disclose the names of all outside business clients who have business with New York state — a major point of conflict during the Moreland Commission’s investigation late last year. Legislators would also be required to reveal direct referrals of business to their firms by state lobbyists or clients in order to ensure there is no conflict of interest.