“I have seen a whole string of politicians, one coming after another saying, ‘I’m different, trust me. I’m not like the other guy,’” New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo told a mostly student audience at New York University School of Law on February 2. “And I had my heart broken again and again and again.”
Those of us who care about honest government had their hearts broken by Cuomo himself, back in March 2014, when he disbanded the Moreland Commission. He had created it eight months earlier, with a broad mandate to investigate state government. It could probe anyone, he said at the time, even Cuomo himself. Then he killed it.
At NYU, Cuomo sought to woo us back. He laid out a plan with five points. Among them:
• Lawmakers “will have to disclose to the public all the outside income they receive, from who, for what and whether there is any connection to the state government or the office that they hold.”
• After Citizens United, the state cannot limit independent campaign expenditures but it can “require disclosure.… We are proposing the strongest campaign finance disclosure rules in the nation by increasing the frequency and the detail of campaign and independent filing expenditures.”
• “Per diems have become backdoor salary supplements. Legislators travel to Albany because they make money on the per diems, believe it or not. We must ensure that per diems are only for actual and necessary costs or paid as a fixed amount.”
Cuomo acknowledged that he needs the legislature’s cooperation to do these things. Pressure from its leaders may explain why he dissolved the Moreland Commission. The criminal complaint against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver alleges sleazy details that Silver would not have wanted the commission to uncover. How will the governor persuade lawmakers to agree this time?
“I will not sign a budget,” he pledged, “that does not have an ethics plan as outlined in my proposal that addresses the current problems in the system.” He called this his “leverage.” The State has passed four budgets in a row and on time, he reminded the audience, which hasn’t happened since Nelson Rockefeller. But Cuomo said that his pledge “means in all probability that we will not have a fifth on-time amicable budget.”
This is “go ahead, make my day,” kind of talk.
In tone and word, Cuomo told us that he is done with compromise on ethics legislation. Here was a new (or renewed) Cuomo. Should we trust him with our hearts once more? Cautiously. Cuomo repeatedly invoked the memory of his father, Mario Cuomo, who died January 1. “My father’s driving philosophy was as simple as it was powerful,” Cuomo said. “We should do good things while we are on Earth…. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s the smart thing to do.” It seemed that Andrew was offering Mario’s moral authority as a marker for his promises and that Andrew meant it that way. It may be the best security we could want.