Rochester Democrat & Chronicle: Urgency Needed on Campaign Finance Reform [Editorial]

Editorial: Urgency Needed on Campaign Finance Reform

Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

May 6, 2012

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s attitude toward campaign finance reform appears to be “do as I say, not as I do.”

What he said, last Wednesday in a radio interview, is that such reform remains a priority for this legislative session, which runs through next month. What he did, that evening, was rake in $450,000 for his 2014 campaign at Buffalo’s Hotel Lafeyette — “one of the most successful fundraising events in western New York history,” said the Buffalo News.

This is the “new New York” Cuomo painted as a candidate? More like old-school politics, and a worrisome sign that the governor, forceful though he can be on issues of his choosing, isn’t averse to benefiting from a system he vowed to change.

Calls for change

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and state Senate Minority Leader John Sampson introduced legislation last month intended to reduce the influence of big money in Albany by increasing the role smaller donors play in campaigns. Their bills aren’t cure-alls, but they would improve a system in which everyday New Yorkers find their voices drowned out by big-money donors and special interests.

Unfortunately, majority Republicans in the Senate have been cool to the idea, citing a price tag they say could approach $200 million. And Cuomo’s comments have been less than encouraging. Both need to get on board.

The bills call for public financing for statewide and state-level races. For every dollar donated by an individual living in the candidate’s district, $6 in matching funds would be provided. Among the stipulations: Individual donations could not exceed $250 and candidates would need a minimum number of such smaller, local donors to qualify. The program would be voluntary.

Good-government groups are welcoming the proposals.

“These bills are a strong first step,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY. She nonetheless hopes to see the proposals strengthened to include areas such as political parties’ so-called housekeeping committees.

As a Democrat and Chronicle watchdog report outlined Tuesday, the rules governing the raising of “soft money” to pay for party operating expenses, such as office space and staff members, are notoriously loose in New York.

Such spending is not insignificant. The report found Monroe County’s Republican Party housekeeping committee spent almost $400,000 during the last six months of 2011; its Democratic counterpart spent roughly $255,000

Cuomo, who is working behind the scenes on campaign reform, hopes to include housekeeping activities in any final measure. Still, he has downplayed optimism for progress on the issue this year, citing Senate GOP opposition and this fall’s elections as hindrances. If the governor is serious about campaign finance reform, he must bring to the issue the same tirelessness that made same-sex marriage and a tax cap legislative successes.

Cuomo’s promises

As a candidate, Cuomo vowed in 2010 to reform state government through a one-two effort that would take redistricting out of lawmakers’ hands, and add transparency and integrity to campaign financing. Redistricting appeared to become a bargaining chip in a multi-issue deal this spring that saw a new, less-generous pension tier for public workers. Changes in the redistricting process won’t take effect until after the 2020 Census.

That leaves campaign finance, which itself appears to have been left hanging. Why? Cuomo knows what the problem is: “Current election law amplifies the voices of wealthy individuals and special interests,” his 2010 campaign publication “Clean Up Albany: Make It Work” declared. “We must fundamentally alter our system to give voices to all New Yorkers.”

So what’s the hold-up? Any reforms would already be too late to affect this year’s elections — and perhaps even statewide races in 2014. New York has a political problem; Cuomo has the political capital. Instead of enjoying the state’s campaign finance laws, he should fix them.

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