The 2015 legislative session wrapped up last week, one week later than scheduled. During the last 2 weeks of session, nearly 540 bills passed both houses. But the big story was the last bill approved – the “Big Ugly.”
What’s a “Big Ugly”? The Big Ugly is an amalgamation of smaller proposals lumped together into one “big” bill. In this case, the 72 page bill covered a wide range of topics, including: extension of rent control largely for New York City tenants; extension of tax credit programs for developments in New York City; expansion of charter schools in New York City; $250 million in aid for nonpublic K-12 schools; aid for the city of Yonkers; and an extension of the state’s property tax cap.
All in one piece of legislation. Ugly.
And the legislation was slapped together and made public a mere few hours before the legislature voted on the legislation, which – by the way – was around midnight. The process was ugly too.
Hence, the “Big Ugly.”
And to add insult to injury, the governor and state lawmakers ignored the elephant in the room – the swelling number of scandals and indictments that have plagued Albany.
It really was remarkable: lawmakers were complaining that they were having a hard time negotiating agreements because the US Attorney was watching. They said that his indictments of the former Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader complicated the session.
It’s not surprising that the indictments had some impact on the session. But you can’t have it both ways: complain that the US Attorney is watching after the arrests of the legislative leaders and then ignore reforms that could help restore the public’s trust in their own government.
But they did just that.
The few reforms that were approved came in the state budget agreement, but were widely criticized as “inadequate” to solve the massive scandals that have plagued the Capitol. The failure to enact any other needed changes was indefensible and shockingly irresponsible.
Instead, the governor and the legislative leaders should have taken steps to:
- strengthen the state ethics watchdogs to bolster their independence and public accountability;
- place real limits on lawmakers’ outside employment;
- appoint an independent executive and legislative compensation commission; and
- close the LLC loophole created by the Board of Elections, in addition to other critical campaign finance reforms.
Any ethics agreement is only as good as the agencies charged with its enforcement. New York’s ethics enforcement entities—JCOPE and the Legislative Ethics Commission—require substantial improvement.
New Yorkers deserved a serious response before the end of session in this year of unending corruption scandals. Inaction and deflection in the face of the continuing ethics scandals is unacceptable. New York’s political leadership must strengthen regulation, oversight and the enforcement of the state’s ethics laws. New Yorkers across the state are demanding no less.
Governor Cuomo and the state’s legislative leaders shouldn’t blow off their responsibility to strengthen the state’s ethics. The governor in particular has to take the lead: the governor should convene a special session to tackle ethics reforms before the end of the calendar year.
The “Big Ugly” must not be the final word on the 2015 legislative session.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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