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Ethics reform debate continues in Albany

One of the ethics reforms agreed to in the state budget has still not been passed by State Assembly Democrats, and minority party Republicans say they are worried that the bill will be delayed, or watered down.

When the state budget was approved in late March, Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders announced some reform measures, including changing the state’s constitution to deny government pensions to lawmakers convicted of felonies.

But, nearly three months later, that key piece of legislation has still not been enacted by the Assembly, and  the measure is being revised to reflect concerns by labor unions, who don’t want the provision to apply to union officials who might be convicted of crimes. Assembly Republican Minority Leader Brian Kolb says the Democrats are reneging on the deal.

“It was publicized that they had an agreement, and all of a sudden they’re not living up to an agreement. I think that’s unconscionable,” Kolb said. “Certainly I think the governor should be upset and the Assembly should be upset.”  

Numerous legislators have been indicted, convicted and even jailed in recent years, and both former leaders of the legislature face multiple corruption charges. Under current law, if they are convicted of felonies, they are still able to collect their state pensions for the rest of their lives.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie admits the bill has been  changed from the original version, which the State Senate has already passed, but did not offer details.

“We’re going to get to it,” said Heastie who said he expects the bill to be discussed in the private Democratic Assembly conference meeting and voted on before the session ends June 17th.

In order to change the state’s constitution, the measure must be passed by two consecutively elected houses of the legislature, then go before voters, where polls show it would likely be approved.  

The Republican leader says he’s dismayed that more ethics reforms are not part of end of session discussions. Minority members are usually left out of top level end -of -session talks. But Kolb says he knows talks are going on about the top two remaining issues, renewing New York City’s rent laws and an education tax credit for donors who give up to a million dollars to fund scholarships for poor children in private schools and fund afterschool activities at public schools.   The Republican leader says he does not believe the two issues should be linked in a traditional deal dubbed the Big Ugly.   

“Hopefully there won’t be a Big Ugly at the end,” said Kolb. “Because we should be taking up bills on their individual merits.”

Democratic Speaker Heastie agrees with Kolb on that point, and wants issues to be decided individually. The Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, Cathy Nolan, says she doesn’t think the education tax credit should be approved this year.

“It’s not the right thing to move on an educational tax credit this year,” Nolan said. “There’s much more that would need to be discussed, and many, many questions that need to answered.” 

But Nolan says she can’t rule out a scenario in which the education tax credit passes as some kind of larger deal at the end of the session.

As for the pension forfeiture bill, Speaker Heastie says lawmakers actually have until the end of 2016 before they have to finalize the first step to change the state’s constitution, so he says there’s plenty of time to agree on a new bill.

Assembly GOP Leader Kolb also had harsh words for Governor Cuomo, who’s threatened to keep lawmakers in session every day if the rent laws expire on June 15thwith no renewal by the legislature.

“I don’t believe in ultimatums,” said Kolb. “I think that’s a bully approach.”

Kolb says lawmakers are adults and don’t need threats, and he says he believes at the very least the rent laws, along with a related property tax cap due to expire next year, can be extended.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.