April 1, 2014
On the opening day of baseball season, which was also the last day of New York’s state fiscal year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators managed to bring home a state budget without having to go into extra innings. We’ll leave to another day a thorough analysis of the on-time budget’s fiscal implications.
But the budget deal’s big swing-and-a-miss is clearly how little it does to address what many New Yorkers consider state government’s most glaring failure: its awful ethical climate, visible in the arrest or forced resignation of several state legislators in recent months. To bring reform, the budget needed changes aimed at leveling the playing field between ordinary citizens and big money interests at the Capitol. Sadly, that was laid aside.
It’s a topic Mr. Cuomo talked about often on the campaign trail, and before that in the years he was attorney general. Back then, he pushed for expanding the attorney general’s authority to investigate and prosecute officials for violating public integrity laws. Mr. Cuomo also insisted elections would be more fair if the state matched small donations with taxpayer dollars. If only the governor had held firmly to those convictions once elected, his own credibility might not now be in question.
But Mr. Cuomo inexplicably declined to support giving the authority he once sought to his successor as attorney general, Eric Schneiderman. Instead, he appointed a special ethics panel and charged it with probing corruption. The Moreland Act commission appropriately zeroed in on the influence of money in politics, and recommended public campaign financing, among other reforms.
But after ostensibly supporting public financing by including it in his budget plan, Mr. Cuomo gave up on it in negotiations. Instead, we’ll get a one-year “pilot” for just the state comptroller race. It’s an odd outcome, since both the Assembly’s Democratic majority and most state senators support public financing; it was opposed by the Republicans. Thus the governor, who at last report had $33 million in re-election cash, and legislators, who have the fundraising benefits of incumbency, have seemingly concluded that reform is appropriate only on a very small scale, and only as long as it doesn’t apply to themselves. Thus the governor, who at last report had $33 million in re-election cash, and legislators, who have the fundraising benefits of incumbency, have seemingly concluded that reform is appropriate only on a very small scale, and only as long as it doesn’t apply to themselves.
Mr. Cuomo now plans to disband his Moreland Commission, in exchange for changes in ethics laws that appear more superficial than substantive. Killing the Moreland Commission, of course, is convenient for anyone who might have fallen under its investigative gaze, including Mr. Cuomo and the legislators.
Maybe the push for real reform — including a broad public campaign finance law and tough investigative power focused on campaign money — can find its footing in the weeks ahead. But Mr. Cuomo and state legislators had a great chance in this budget deal to change the culture of corruption. They didn’t just whiff; they went down looking.