So much for a happy New Year.
Gov. David Paterson is opening the 2010 legislative session not by extending the traditional handshake to the Legislature, but by scolding lawmakers about Albany's notorious ethical lapses and calling for reform.
Much of the fodder is fresh: The December corruption conviction of former Senate leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican and one of Albany's most powerful figures; and a June guilty plea to fraud by former Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, a Democrat, who was paid as a consultant to represent a local hospital before a state agency.
Paterson is pushing for stricter rules covering campaigning and legislators' work. He also wants to curb the influence of special interests, in part by restricting the large contributions made to lawmakers. The Democratic governor, low in the polls, plans to make the need for anti-corruption statutes a primary part of his State of the State speech Wednesday, the opening act in this election-year legislative session.
The proposed "Reform Albany Act" includes term limits and would force lawmakers to disclose their outside income and any clients who might have business with the state. The proposals require the Legislature's approval and would take at least months or years to become law under the most cooperative of circumstances.
Paterson's top aides on Tuesday accused the Democrat-led Assembly and Senate of meeting secretly to rewrite Paterson's reform into a "watered down" version. Paterson's aides also said lawmakers would be "hypocrites" if they don't adopt accountability and transparency measures like the ones recently imposed on public authorities.
"I think the public is fed up with the way things happen or don't happen here in Albany," said Lawrence Schwartz, the secretary to the governor. "Elected officials at the state level are going to have a lot of explaining to do if they pass a watered-down version ... the governor wants real reform."
Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group called Paterson's proposal a late Christmas present for good-government groups. But he said Paterson needs to bring the Legislature aboard for the ideas to mean anything.
"It's easy to write a great bill. It's hard to get a good law," Horner said. "The governor has been absent in the heavy lifting on these bills ... voters will judge him based on his achievements, not his bills."
Horner said the Legislature seems focused on significant reform, and a little cooperation between the governor and legislative leaders could substantially change the way Albany functions.
Saying lawmakers might be hypocrites? "That doesn't help," Horner said.
The rhetoric was harsh for the eve of the annual State of the State address, a mostly political event where feuding sides usually try to put on their best statesmanlike demeanors. The tenor on Tuesday surprised lawmakers. But Paterson had taken an increasingly hard line against the Legislature in late 2009, which was widely credited with boosting his poll numbers.
Dan Weiller, spokesman for the Assembly's Democratic majority, insisted legislators have included the governor in negotiations.
Austin Shafran, speaking for the Senate's Democratic majority, wouldn't comment on the criticism by the governor's aides.
"We will review the governor's bill when we receive it. Until that time, the Senate will continue to negotiate pragmatic ethics reform with the Assembly," Shafran said.
"A confrontational tone gets you nowhere," said Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos of Nassau County, referring to Paterson. "Eliot Spitzer took the steamroller approach. It didn't work."