By Robert J. McCarthy
NO ETHICS REFORM -- no budget.
That is the message that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is delivering as he tours the state with his budget proposal, laying on the line what may be his proudest accomplishment of more than four years in office -- on-time passage of the state budget.
Cuomo made it clear Tuesday in Buffalo that he will sign no budget agreement without significant ethical reforms for legislators.
He wants them to disclose sources of outside income and other measures, labeling it his "top initiative for this year." And he is convinced that the time is ripe, following the recent arrest of then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on federal corruption charges and other ethical lapses in Albany.
"I'm very proud we've gotten four budgets on time; it's the first time it's happened in 40 years," he said during a meeting with editors and reporters of The Buffalo News. "But I would rather have real ethics reform than have a budget on time. I believe the more trust there is, the more capacity for government.
"You would have to be totally tone-deaf not to get that something dramatic has to happen -- this was the speaker of the Assembly," he added, referring to the Silver corruption case.
While Cuomo achieved some ethics reform goals during the last legislative session that ended in March, he said then that he had achieved all that was politically possible at that time.
But the Silver scandal has changed all that.
"You build when people are paying attention, and you have a moment to achieve progress. I think we have a moment," he said. "This is a crisis; there's energy created by the crisis. Use the energy of the crisis for positive reform."
Cuomo, who earlier Tuesday outlined many of his budget priorities during a presentation at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, said he understands legislators' resistance to make public many aspects of their private business. That stems, he acknowledged, from the original concept of a part-time citizen legislature that included farmers returning home to work their fields.
But today's legislators must choose between their private- and public-sector lives if a conflict arises, he said, adding that such transparency is part of the "sacrifice of being in public service" and that failure to disclose "makes me doubly suspicious."
"They have a right to their private business, and they don't want you to know their private business," Cuomo said. "What is your private business? And is it influencing your judgment?"
But the governor is also hounded by questions surrounding his disbanding of his Moreland Commission on Public Integrity last year. The same prosecutor who ordered Silver's arrest -- U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan -- is also probing whether anyone in the Cuomo administration interfered with the anti-corruption panel.
Cuomo said he feels no diminution of his standing to demand such reforms while reports indicate that Bharara is investigating his office, too. None of the U.S. attorney's investigators have contacted him, Cuomo said, and he did not know whether they had contacted his attorneys.
The governor also said he is not optimistic that he will achieve his ethics reform goals without delaying passage of the budget. "Right now, I would not guess we will have an amicable, on-time budget if this ethics piece has to be in it," he said.
Cuomo also touched on several other topics, including:
-- Roswell Park Cancer Institute -- The hospital cannot can't continue to count on receiving $100 million a year from the state, an "absurd" level of funding that far outpaces what other state-supported hospitals receive, Cuomo said.
He called for a $15.5 million state aid cut to Roswell Park and repeated his view that the cancer center needs to come up with a plan to become less reliant on state funding.
"I've been saying for four years, 'We can't keep doing this.' And every year, everybody says, 'This is the last year. We'll come up with something; we'll have a new plan, next year,'" Cuomo said. "Every year, they've said that for four years. This year, they come in and they say, 'We need the same $100 million.'"
Cuomo's comments came after state lawmakers from the Buffalo area warned that his proposed state funding cut will dig deep into the cancer center's finances. In a Jan. 27 letter, 15 state senators and Assembly members from Western New York agreed that Roswell Park needs to become less dependant on state aid, which accounts for about 15 percent of its $663 million budget, but said that such a move "should not be rushed" and "operational reforms" need to be instituted first.
-- Teacher evaluations -- There is no "silver bullet" for evaluating teachers, Cuomo said, but the state should adopt a "bona fide" system that allows for comparisons of teachers across the state.
"You don't need a lot of tests, but you do need one that is beyond your district," he said. "I think a lot of people don't want the cross-district comparisons. I think a lot of people don't want any of these evaluations. Why? Because left to my own devices, I don't want to be evaluated, period."
Cuomo has proposed overhauling the existing teacher- and principal-evaluation system to reduce the influence of local unions in determining how educators are rated. Instead, he would like state tests in reading, math and other subjects to count for a greater percentage of a teacher's score.
Those tests currently count for between 20 and 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation, depending on what was negotiated by their union. Under Cuomo's proposal, student performance on state assessments would count for 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation, with classroom observations counting for the other 50 percent.
Critics of Cuomo's proposal to rewrite the teacher-rating system say the state should reduce the use of standardized tests in evaluating teachers, not increase it.
Although the governor was an early champion of the state's existing teacher-evaluation system, in recent months he repeatedly questioned how more than 99 percent of the state's teachers could be rated "effective" and "highly effective."
"I think everybody would say the evaluations were a little skewed," Cuomo said.
-- Community colleges -- They must do a better job of teaming with employers to teach the specific skills and knowledge employers demand for their employees, instead of allowing students to rack up debt taking courses that don't lead to jobs, Cuomo said in explaining some of his latest proposals for higher education.
Chiding community colleges for what he called "abysmal" graduation rates, Cuomo said his budget proposal seeks to align what community colleges teach with the economic-development goals of a particular region so that employers seeking skilled workers will have a steady supply.
Currently, some employers don't have enough workers with the specific skills needed for their jobs. Those skills vary by employer, so community colleges need to work more closely with employers to make their programs more relevant, Cuomo said.
"There's no generic skills package anymore," the governor said.
Cuomo wants to shift the state's support for community colleges, as well as for State University of New York campuses, from the current enrollment-driven formula to one that bases a portion of state aid on performance in areas such as access, completion rates and job placement. His budget proposal calls for 10 percent of base operating aid to be contingent on colleges and universities completing "performance improvement plans."
-- Possible new Bills stadium -- A decision on whether and where to build a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills is "not imminent," Cuomo said.
The governor signaled that resolution of the stadium issue is far from a burning issue for his administration.
"I'm not at a point where I have a preference. ... I think the location question is premature," Cuomo said.
It is uncertain whether Cuomo's comments were a reflection of the state's hesitation to engage in a process -- with state budget talks getting underway -- that will likely include some level of taxpayer assistance for a stadium project, or if team owners Terry and Kim Pegula have sent any indications to the state that they have no interest yet in moving forward with the process.
News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious and News Staff Reporters Denise Jewell Gee, Jay Tokasz and Stephen T. Watson contributed to this report. email: email@example.com
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