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Ethics and Corruption Dominate Discussion on 1st Day of 2016 Session

Matt Ryan New York Now

The opening day of the legislative session featured talk of ethics reform, but Governor Cuomo chose to be elsewhere, putting off his traditional State of the State message for another week, and giving speeches in Syracuse and New York City instead.

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The Senate and Assembly convened  for the first time since both leaders of the legislature were convicted of multiple corruption charges in late 2015 and now face potentially decades in prison.

While the names of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos were not mentioned, there were hints of the tumultuous events of last year and the scalding fall out, even in the words of the traditional opening prayers in each house.

In the Assembly, Pastor Norman Coleman of the Burke Avenue Baptist Church in his invocation spoke of the lawmakers gathered for the session.

“Lord remember, that they are dust, prone to sin,” said Coleman. “Like we all are.”

In the Senate, Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan asked for “wisdom to know right from wrong”.

The new legislative leaders, however, seem reluctant to back major changes to respond to the wave of corruption. Senate Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan, in his opening speech to colleagues, said lawmakers already implemented a number of reforms.

“I am not going to apologize,” Flanagan said. “In the last 7 or 8 years we have made major, sweeping changes in our laws.”

And Senator Flanagan blamed the Assembly for failing to pass into law in 2015 an agreed upon bill to strip public pensions from lawmakers who are convicted of felonies. Both former leaders Silver and Skelos have applied for pensions that are estimated to pay them around $90,000 a year.

“The Assembly chose not to,” Flanagan said. “They need to do better.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie also told his members, in  remarks on the Assembly floor, that lawmakers have already passed a number of ethics changes. And he says, in answer to reporters’ questions, the Assembly still wants to enact the pension reforms, but simply got bogged down on details required to amend the state’s constitution, which requires the vote of two concurrently elected legislatures.

“We’ll get it done this year,” said Heastie. “There was never a desire not to do it.”

Reform groups, including Common Cause and the New York Public Interest Research Group issued a challenge to lawmakers, asking them to sign what they call a “Clean Conscience Pledge”  that would , among other things, ban or limit outside income.

“There’s a cloud of corruption hanging over the Legislature, and its everyone's responsibility to clear the air,” said Susan Lerner of Common Cause.

Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo skipped the opening day of session and the traditional speech, and was far from Albany and any talk of scandal or taint. He traveled the state for the third day in a row, laying out his 2016 agenda. In Syracuse, he announced a planned freeze on Thruway tolls through 2020. In New York City, he announced plans to restart the long delayed renovation of the run down Penn station.

“Travelers are relegated to a bleak warren of corridors,” Cuomo said. “Frankly, it’s a miserable experience.”

There was another person absent from the Capitol who has played a big role in Albany’s fortunes over the past several months. US Attorney Preet Bharara, who  successfully prosecuted the former legislative leaders, as well as several other lawmakers, was not even in New York State. Bharara was in Kentucky, where he addressed lawmakers there at an ethics forum, using the events of New York’s corruption wave as a cautionary tale.