Gov. Andrew Cuomo's historic panel charged with making government more efficient began its work Monday with introductions, although a number of the business leaders may have already met at Cuomo campaign fundraisers.
Seven of the more than 20 members to the prestigious panel are among Cuomo's biggest contributors. State records show they donated more than $245,000 to his campaigns dating to his attorney general race in 2006.
State election records also show relatives of those members and some of their companies contributed an additional $30,000 more during that period. Some of the companies are Albany's biggest lobbying clients, spending hundreds of thousands a dollars a year to influence state actions.
Cuomo spokesman Richard Bamberger notes the business members were chosen because they are leaders in their fields of management, respected for their ability to run efficient operations.
The group's report is due June 1 and Cuomo plans to enact measures soon after the Legislature's review and input.
The panel named the Spending and Government Efficiency Commission, which Cuomo calls SAGE, is perhaps the first major effort to reduce the size and cost of New York's government since the 1920s. The size, work force and cost — $132 billion a year — of New York's government is far more than most states and has long been a concern for officials like Cuomo who seek to curb taxes and make the state more attractive to employers.
"It is time to consolidate the web of state agencies, authorities, and commissions that have overlapping function and missions and to make the remaining ones perform better and more efficiently," Cuomo said in a statement. He said state government has "ballooned, evolving into the sprawling and inefficient bureaucracy we have today."
Cuomo is again using his system of bringing "stake holders" to solve a problem, then taking what is a powerful consensus to the Legislature that can't be torn apart by the special interests and lobbyists because they had a role in the solution. Cuomo did the same with his Medicaid Redesign Team to cut that massive program and improve services.
While the concerted effort, which includes employers expert in their fields, big labor organizations and lawmakers is new, the selection of New Yorkers to the important panel isn't.
"The people on this commission, many of them, are stake holders that bring expertise to the table, but they clearly have a stake in the outcome and it would be nearly impossible for them to put aside their day jobs," said Russ Haven of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
"It's not a shock that these entities are spending money to influence the outcome of elections," Haven said of the campaign contributions. "It's a substantial amount ... and it's evidence that this is far from a disinterested assembly of government efficiency geeks. These are people who have a very tangible financial stake in how government operates."
Cuomo has done this before. Just as with SAGE, he has included a well-respected official to guide the issue. Paul Francis, Cuomo's director of agency redesign and efficiency who is working in his third administration, is heading the group with Antonio M. Perez, chairman and CEO of Eastman Kodak Co.
The commission includes Jonathan Sandelman, managing partner of Mercer Park investment firm who contributed $57,000 in 2006; Neil Cole, CEO of Iconix Brand Group, who contributed $51,000; and Barry M. Gosin, CEO of Newmark & Co. Real Estate, who contributed $35,000, while his wife contributed $37,000, according to state election records.
Haven said the key to avoiding criticism is transparency in the commission's action, such as Monday's public meeting; and a clear explanation of what was accepted and rejected in the recommendations.
"Then the public can decide if there has been undue influence," he said.
The Medicaid Redesign Team faced some criticism after its mostly public process, when a decision was made during a private lunch break to end the discussion a day early and present the findings to Cuomo, who accepted them all.