March 22, 2012
The governor’s about-face on redistricting makes tougher campaign finance laws all the more urgent.
He still wants to change the state’s political culture, doesn’t he?
There was Governor Cuomo calling for radical changes to the way political campaigns are financed in New York. The money should come, when necessary, from the state government itself — not just high-rolling donors. And the contribution limits need to be substantially lower.
“Let’s have elections that New Yorkers can be proud of,” the governor said in his State of the State speech in January. “Let’s have campaign finance reform and let’s do it this year.”
An ambitious order, certainly, especially when Mr. Cuomo’s primary audience was the very Legislature that would have to pass new campaign finance laws.
Then again, this was New York’s tenacious, reform-minded governor talking, defining as critical a termination of politics as usual. Key to that, too, he said, was having an independent commission draw the boundaries for the districts in which those legislators seek — and almost always win — re-election.
Who would dare challenge Mr. Cuomo’s commitment to reform?
The depressing truth is that he has done just that himself, thanks to the deal he struck last week in which the Legislature retains control of redistricting for another decade, and might yield it only marginally after that.
The governor has achieved something, though: He has made campaign finance reform even more urgent than it had been already.
New York’s campaign finance laws are embarrassingly weak, what with contribution “limits” of up to $60,800 to a candidate in a statewide race, 20 times higher than the federal limit; unlimited donations to political parties’ slush funds; and shockingly lax restrictions on the personal use of campaign contributions.
With the failure of redistricting reform, overhauling those laws is essential if Mr. Cuomo’s wants to keep his promise to fix state government.
Controlling the cost of running for the Legislature would at least begin to level the playing field for challengers in their campaigns against incumbents who have effectively drawn their own districts and thus chosen their own voters. Allowing donations of up to $16,800 to state Senate candidates and up to $8,200 to Assembly candidates is to ask for elections that are bought more than they are won. Those limits let the special interests overwhelm ordinary voters.
Mr. Cuomo needs to re-establish his credentials as the governor who will change the culture of state government and end “pay to play.”
“I was elected to come to an incredibly dysfunctional capital and make the government work better, and that’s what I’m doing,” the governor said last week, in the aftermath of a frenzy of political horse-trading.
OK, Mr. Cuomo. Say it again — after prevailing upon the Legislature to pass campaign finance laws with public funding as the cornerstone.
These legislators owe you one. And you owe the people who elected you an even bigger debt.