March 30, 2013
With the budget done, nothing’s more critical for the Legislature to address than campaign finance reform.
Imagine a state government where the big decisions were made free of consideration of campaign contributions.
The state budget is a done deal. New York’s minimum wage is about to go up, albeit too modestly, and schools will get more money, though not enough for some. The results are typical, given the negotiations inevitable in the making of the annual spending plan.
That, in essence, is where things stand halfway through the legislative session. So what do these lawmakers do to justify three more months of trips to Albany and the per diem payments that come with them?
How about something bold? Something as politically courageous as the passage of gay marriage in the waning hours of the 2011 legislative session?
Lawmakers don’t have to look any further than the need to fix New York’s deplorably anti-democratic campaign finance laws. Take this as a challenge to both the Legislature and a governor who has shown that he can steer his agenda into law — if and when, that is, he has the political will.
For years now, we’ve been making the case for fair campaign finance laws — reform worthy of the name, that is, which would favor voters over well-funded special interests, who usually support incumbent, politicians. And, yes, here we go again.
Just imagine what the three first months of this legislative session could have been like if lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo weren’t such hostages to political money.
Consider the way these legislators took care of themselves as they slapped together a state budget. That $350 million in tax rebates they’ve approved for next year, just in time for their re-election campaigns, is little more than a shameless effort to buy voters’ affection. So what if New York has to cut funding for the developmentally disabled to pay for it?
What might a Legislature free of devotion to special interests have done rather than cutting $40 million from dozens of public health programs?
Publicly financed campaigns, sensible limits on contributions to candidates, and a Board of Elections with the proper structure, power and resources to do its job, are the deterrents New York needs to the usual politics of self-interest. A legislator with reason to fear an election challenger on roughly equal financial footing is going to think again before continuing to embrace fiscal gimmickry.
Money talks, and as the latest lobbying report shows, the loudest voices in Albany are business and sports interests, which dominate an industry that spent more than $200 million last year to influence state government. Imagine if low-wage workers, schools, parents and advocates for the sick and disabled had a more level playing field in the state Capitol.
This legislative session began, like so many before it, with a gubernatorial call for the most fundamental reform imaginable to state government. How encouraging it would be — and how different future sessions would be, too — if the session ended with a satisfactory answer, not the same old silence.