After three months of discussions and posturing, Governor Cuomo and the legislature finalized a state budget late last week. Lawmakers took their final votes in the hours after midnight Saturday morning and met the deadline for getting the budget completed on time.
There were significant difficulties in getting an agreement. The state was facing a large deficit, changes brought about by the federal government added to the budgetary uncertainty, and the upcoming election magnified the partisan differences between the Democratic Governor, the Democratically-controlled state Assembly, and the Republican-led state Senate.
The fragile nature of the Senate majority coalition made deal making even harder. The razor-thin majority, with 31 Republicans joined by one Democrat, constitute the 32 seats needed to lead and pass legislation in the 63 seat Senate. Thus, even losing one vote could lead to a budget plan collapse.
As a result, the final budget agreement focused on the basics of paying for government services, plus top priority issues. For example, in reaction to the federal tax law changes, the governor’s plan to offer an alternative tax system to allow interested in employers to change the way tax are collected was adopted.
Yet, despite the unrelenting revelations of government corruption, not only were there no new reforms enacted, there wasn’t even a debate.
In fact, the argument was made that the current system “worked.” After all, the perpetrators were arrested and convicted. But that argument is really just an excuse for inaction.
The vast majority of convictions were the result of investigations launched by federal prosecutors and the violations were of federal laws. What happened to the state investigators and the violations of state laws?
According to the proceedings in the federal courts, top members of the state Senate and Assembly and top aides to the governor used their public offices for private gain. And in most cases, they did it for years. They were able to use their power to ensure that they operated secretly without worry. Had it not been for the U.S, Attorney’s office, it is likely they would still be involved in their corrupt schemes.
Will the U.S. Attorney’s investigations keep up? There is no way to know if the new Trump Administration will keep fighting government corruption with the same zeal as the Obama Administration.
But why should New Yorkers spend millions on state-based ethics enforcers that are unable to deter high-level government corruption? Shouldn’t Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders ask and answer that question?
It’s fair to say that the dozens of ethics crimes are evidence that they system does not work. A system that allows secrecy in decision-making, raises the risk of corruption. A system that limits the power of government watchdogs to enforce state laws, raises the risk of corruption. And the watchdogs themselves are creatures of the same political entities that they are supposed to monitor; that structure raises the risk of corruption.
It’s clear that those increased risks have resulted in unprecedented scandals. But for the work of federal investigators, it is likely that virtually all of the schemes would still be in place.
What is clear is that the system does not work. Despite the public pronouncements that all is well, to any reasonable New Yorker it is clear that all is not well.
Yet the governor and the legislature continue to do nothing.
In a representative democracy, voters send individuals to federal, state and local offices to represent the public interest. The job of these representatives is to solve, to the best that they can, problems that plague society.
Corruption in New York is a big problem. Public officials should be trying to solve it, not ignore it. A political calculation is in play, the calculation is that the public, while disgusted by the scandals, is not ultimately going to vote elected officials out of office based on the issue of corruption.
They believe that they can rely on the power of their incumbency – rigged district lines, massive campaign finance war chests, taxpayer funded public relations machinery, just to name a few – to win reelection.
We should expect, and demand, more.
Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers have three months until the scheduled end of the legislative session. Curbing corruption should be at the top of their “to do” list.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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