State Politics Trumps Ethics Reform: Analysis - NBC New York

State Politics Trumps Ethics Reform: Analysis



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    New York's senators returned to Albany this week after holding themselves hostage this summer in a nasty power struggle that gridlocked government for more than a month and capped three of Albany's most scandal-scarred years. So what did the Senate do Thursday?
    They failed to pass an ethics reform bill.
    Republicans, in the chamber's minority, got much of the blame. But there's enough to go around.    

    Democrats insisted on an amendment they and good-government groups felt gave the primary ethics reform bill the teeth needed to improve ethics in election laws. It would create a panel to hire an executive director to investigate campaign finance and other violations, a monumental task that the understaffed state Board of Elections hasn't been able to handle.
    But Republicans say the panel's three appointees by the governor and one each by the attorney general, the comptroller and legislative leaders -- seven of nine being Democrats -- would result in a Democratic "hit unit.''
    So Republicans, seizing on the absence of a Democrat attending his father's funeral, blocked the amendment in a party line vote.
    It left the Democratic majority one vote shy.
    Yet Republicans promised throughout Thursday night's floor debate that they would vote for the primary ethics bill that would have toughened enforcement of ethics in the executive branch, the Legislature and among lobbyists. The bill has already passed the Assembly, so Senate approval would have sent it to Gov. David Paterson, who could sign it into law.
    Democrats, however, said the amendment was crucial and when Republicans defeated it, the whole bill got yanked. Democrats will now wait until all their members are present so they can force ethics reform.
    Republicans accused Democrats of gamesmanship, by trying to force the GOP into voting for the amendment before voting on the main bill. It involved a bit of twisted logic, too, in which Democrats required action on an amendment to a bill that hadn't yet been voted on.
    Each side declared victory, while both sides lost and New Yorkers are still stuck with a Senate that refuses to get serious about policing its own.
    "Voters have a very low opinion right now of the New York state Senate and I think for many voters this is just a confirmation of their worst fears -- that the senators just don't get it,'' said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll which has tracked Albany's descent to the cellar of public opinion.
    "Government has become about winners and losers rather than governing,'' he said.
    Gone are the statesmen of the stature of Senate Majority Leader Warren Anderson, the upstate Republican who rallied his GOP majority to partner with Democratic leaders from New York City to save the city and the state in the 1970s fiscal crisis.
    "They would look at today's Senate and say, `What the heck is going on here?''' Greenberg said.
    Late Thursday, after a contentious debate on the ethics amendment, senators from both sides seemed to worry they may have pushed too far. John Sampson, the Brooklyn Democratic leader, met with Republican Minority Leader Dean Skelos in private. After, they issued a rare joint statement pledging to work together to improve the bill "in a bipartisan fashion.''
    "This entire year is a concern and it's imperative we show the state we can do better,'' said Sen. Daniel Squadron of Brooklyn, a sponsor of the main ethics bills.
    "Absolutely we should be sitting down with them,'' he told The Associated Press Friday. "But what I fear after last night's debate is they are not serious.''
    Across the Capitol from what senators like to call the upper house, a quiet experiment is under way.
    There, Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan, by most accounts the most powerful figure in Albany, has co-sponsored four bills with the Assembly minority leader, Republican Brian Kolb, who has the smallest slice of power. Among them is the Assembly's version of the ethics bill.
    And a week ago, Democratic Assemblyman Mark Schroeder of Erie County signed onto Kolb's proposal calling for a "people's constitutional convention,'' which could overhaul how state government operates.
    Both are examples of what public opinion polls cry for its representatives to do: Work together.
    "I have no problem working with the speaker in a collaborative fashion to help the state,'' said Kolb, an Auburn Republican. He said their goal is finding common ground.
    "It's a positive tone we're trying to set,'' Kolb said. "I can do battle with anyone when it's appropriate, but I can save that for the campaign season.''