Kathy Hochul is sitting on legislation that would limit how she can leverage public dollars for her own political benefit – despite the ongoing concerns about alleged pay-to-play schemes with donors to her campaign for governor.
“Our oversight should be restored – and the sooner the better,” Comptroller Tom DiNapoli said Monday about getting Hochul’s signature onto a bill passed in June that would require his office to sign off on billions more in spending each year.
“At a time when people are very concerned about every household dollar and every tax dollar, enabling the comptroller’s office to do the job that it was set up to do [is] a very important message,” DiNapoli added.
“If we are going to ensure that we do not have these no-bid contracts that are often associated with the potential of pay-to-play schemes, then it’s absolutely critical that the comptroller’s office has oversight,” Republican state Sen. George Borrello (R-Chautauqua) said.
But Hochul is hardly in a hurry to act on it ahead of the Nov. 8 election against Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Suffolk), who has called her out for accepting campaign cash from people with business before the state.
State lawmakers told The Post they have no idea when Hochul might move on the bill after her staff reached out weeks ago to discuss possible changes.
“I’ve been pushing — and the Assembly sponsor, Ken Zewbrowski, has been pushing — as fast as possible on this because the headlines that have come out this fall, I think show everybody that’s watching why a bill like this is urgently needed,” said state Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick (D-Rockland).
Hochul spokeswoman Hazel Crampton-Hays declined to say when the governor planned to act on the bill, but she has shown a resistance to taking action on many issues before the suddenly tightening race for a full term in the state house is decided.
“We are reviewing the legislation and will continue to ensure that procurement practices protect taxpayer dollars while not inhibiting the ability to quickly procure vital supplies to protect public health and safety,” Crampton-Hays told The Post.
Moving quickly with state purchases is at the heart of a brewing scandal involving a $637 million, no-bid contract for COVID rapid tests her administration gave to a company linked to $300,000 in contributions to her campaign.
Hochul has denied wrongdoing, as has Charlie Tebele, whose New Jersey-based test distributor reportedly charged New York twice as much as states like California paid for the same tests, the Times Union first reported this summer in a series of damning revelations on the deal.
Hochul has claimed the deal, which included tests that were not used for at least many months, was necessary to keep schools open while a more transmissible variant of the coronavirus drove up caseloads last winter.
She has also attracted criticism for taking money from people tied to other matters before the state like overhauling the Penn Station area, transporting Medicaid patients and building a new taxpayer-funded stadium for the Buffalo Bills.
“It definitely would be an opportunity to show that she’s serious about ethics reform,” Rechlin-Melnick said about Hochul signing his bill sooner rather than later as DiNapoli and dozens of advocacy groups have called for in recent weeks.
“There’s everything from the just the money – the dollars and cents of making sure that the taxpayers are getting a good deal to preventing – to corruption. These are the checks the comptroller’s office does that are really essential,” said Rachel Fauss, of Reinvent Albany.
The bipartisan bill would restore oversight powers taken away by disgraced ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016 over contracts inked by CUNY and SUNY, as well as their associated construction funds, that exceed $75,000.
Supporters say that idea would help the state avoid future scandals like the infamous “Buffalo Billion” bid-rigging scheme involving SUNY that eventually sent close Cuomo associates to federal prison.
Deals of $85,000 or more made by the sprawling Office of General Services that oversees a wide variety of state business ranging that includes multimillion-dollar contracts for motor fuel, building leases and school milk.
A 2020 agreement between DiNapoli and Cuomo restored oversight powers on most state spending while leaving contracts tied to SUNY, CUNY, and OGS untouched.
But the Office of the Comptroller would be restored to its former oversight glory if Hochul signs into law the bill sponsored by Reichlin-Melnick and Zewbrowski (D-Rockland), who said he did not know when that might happen.
Hochul has to sign or veto the bill by the end of the year or it would automatically become law.
Hochul has notably avoided vetoing bills as governor by striking deals with state lawmakers to make changes, but those floated by her administration this time around could have big costs to the public, according to Reichlin-Melnik.
“The executive has the position that the bill should be a lot weaker than it currently is,” he said. “They would like fewer contracts reviewed by the comptroller with a shorter time for review for those that can be – and a higher dollar threshold of contracts that would be reviewable.”
Negotiations take time and the more Hochul spends on other issues, the more taxpayer money that will be spent on the growing list of contracts tied to SUNY, CUNY and the Office of General Services that are approved without oversight from the state official elected to do the job.