How did Senate Republicans fall behind on ethics reform?

Not a great week for Senate Republicans in Albany.

In a period of 48 hours, the Republican conference, which has suffered noticeably fewer scandals than the Democrats in recent years, found itself stamped the “bad guys” for balking at a new ethics reform package in Albany.

It was a neat move engineered behind closed doors by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and freshman Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx. But it took a giant misstep by the GOP conference to spring the trap on itself. By Wednesday, editorial boards statewide were labeling Republicans the moral obstructionists in Albany.

That’s a tough label to shake.

Cuomo and Heastie hammered out a surprisingly good package of reforms that includes disclosure of outside income. It would allow the public to see when legislators are voting on bills in their own personal interest. What was strikingly absent from the package were poison-pill reforms, like publicly financed elections, which would have made the proposal a defensible non-starter with the Republican senate, and with a majority of the public, if polling on the public financing issue is to be believed. In other words, this was a clean package of reforms that should have been quickly embraced.

But the Senate was caught flat footed. It was left muttering about the interests of the governor’s girlfriend, TV personality Sandra Lee, which may be a legitimate topic, but one that looks petty and mean spirited. It appeared that the Republican Senate was more interested in protecting the outside financial interests of its members than in the integrity of state government, which may or may not be the case.

As a purely political matter this was a catastrophe for Republicans. “Ethics reform” has been the golden goose sitting atop the state capital building for years waiting to be petted. Whoever got to it first would be the beneficiary of its largesse. It is inexcusable that the Democratic Assembly, which has been the epicenter of Albany corruption, beat the Republicans to the prize. (Republican officials have not been immune to scandal in New York, but far more Democrats have been convicted of crimes.)

In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, the Republican Party has to be the party of reform, if it is to grow. It has to seize and hold the moral high ground, which isn’t a difficult thing to do in New York. But instead of leading the reform charge, which it should have been doing for years, the Senate is left scrambling to explain why the Cuomo-Heastie package isn’t good enough. It is left looking for a raison d’être.

New York Senate Republicans continue to be a reactive chamber at a time where proactivity is required. Leading the reform charge in Albany is not only the morally correct thing to do, it’s the politically smart thing to do. Heastie figured that out a month into his tenure.

The Republican Senate laid an egg in Albany this week all right, but it wasn’t of the golden variety. What a shame. What a lost opportunity.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.