Ethics games

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie stood up at a recent press conference and announced a two-way deal on ethics reform in Albany. Notably absent from the press conference was Dean Skelos, the head man in the Republican-dominated Senate and the “third man in the room” without whom almost nothing gets done in Albany. Since Heastie and Cuomo agreed on the governor’s five-point ethics program, it might mean something, or it might mean nothing. Every seasoned Albany hand knows full well that Mario Cuomo and his son Andrew have been playing a game for years known as “The mean old Republicans won’t let me have my way” strategy. Cuomo wants and needs the Republicans in power so that he can be the good guy and they can be the heavies.

When he ran for governor, Cuomo told the voters that he would veto any reapportionment bill that would allow the legislative majorities to draw their own districts; the theory being that they would draw districts in which they had the best chance of winning. The minute he got into office, he broke his campaign pledge. The Senate Republicans did what came naturally and drew districts in which they couldn’t lose. That put them in power. Then the next time out, Cuomo pledged to get the Democrats into the majority in the state Senate but he “failed.” So it seems clear to me that he wants the Republicans to control the Senate. Then, too, there was that Moreland Act Commission that was abruptly canceled just as they were getting somewhere. That didn’t help his credibility problem.

Now, he stands up with the Assembly speaker and they announce this grand deal on ethics, but the Republican Senate is not on board. Do I really think that Speaker Heastie wants an ethics package? No, I don’t. But if the deal was to come up with something, give Cuomo his bragging rights and at the same time make sure that there would be limited ethics reform, well, maybe. Let’s remember that Cuomo made a string of promises about this that have not exactly worked out. His revised, revised, ethics commission is not known for its effectiveness and Cuomo knew that people were beginning to have their doubts. So he came up with his five-point program, the most important part of which was absolute disclosure about how much money was being made on the outside by legislators, including lawyers and real estate agents. The Senate Republicans, many of whom are quite well heeled, don’t want to do that. I don’t blame them. If I were them, I wouldn’t want to do it either. Luckily, I’m not one of them.

Since some legislators have been reporting that they were in Albany when they were not and claiming the per diem that is given when they are at work, the Cuomo-Heastie team came up with a solution. Members would have to put a card into a machine proving that they were actually where they said they were. Of course, somebody else could punch the clock for them but hey, it’s something. That is one change that we will see happening so that Cuomo and Heastie can say, “See what we did, even without the mean old Republicans?” For their part, the Republicans are insisting that any deal on disclosure include wives and live-in girlfriends like the governor’s housemate, Sandra Lee. This is already being called “Sandra’s Law.”

By no means is ethics reform in Albany a done deal, but more of the same old, same old stuff. Cuomo insists he won’t compromise on his principles, but we have heard that song before. His problem now is that fewer and fewer people believe him and his polling numbers are going down. Maybe he thinks that any ethics reform will confirm his sincerity. Nope, this time he really has to produce.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/24/15

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