April 19, 2013
The recent arrests of a state senator and an assemblyman appear to have reminded Gov. Andrew Cuomo of his overdue promise to begin cleaning up Albany’s swamp of corruption. This week he announced several important proposals to end the political lawlessness, from hardening bribery laws to getting rid of New York’s ridiculous election restrictions imposed by the state’s political parties.
But he left out the most crucial reform of all: public financing of elections, which is essential to encouraging competition for legislative offices and reducing the influence of big money on the state’s politics.
Some of the governor’s proposals have been needed for decades. One would scrap the 66-year-old Wilson-Pakula law, which gives state parties the sole power to determine whether nonparty members can run in their primaries, with permission often given in exchange for contributions. That law has been widely abused, most recently by State Senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, who was arrested as part of a scheme to pay Republican leaders for a chance to run in their New York City mayoral primary this year. Mr. Cuomo’s proposal would allow candidates to collect a certain number of signatures of party members in order to compete, taking money out of the equation.
Mr. Cuomo also proposed setting up an independent enforcement unit to oversee state election laws. As useful as this enforcement unit sounds, it would make more sense if he simply granted the attorney general the authority to investigate election law violations, as he recommended doing in his 2010 campaign for governor.
Pursuing these changes should not distract Mr. Cuomo or state lawmakers from setting up a matching campaign financing system like New York City’s. A matching system would dilute the power of special-interest money and provide voters with a wider choice of candidates on Election Day, two improvements that Albany’s lawmakers have resisted for decades.
State legislators have already come up with bills to provide matching funds for small contributions to candidates. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has proposed creating a voluntary system of public financing with a match of $6 to every $1 raised in small contributions. Unfortunately, the bill would cover only the comptroller race next year. Legislative races would not be covered until 2016; the governor’s race, not until 2018.
State Senator Jeffrey Klein, one of the upper chamber’s co-leaders, has a broader proposal that features matching funds for candidates. His voluntary plan would also begin for the governor’s race in 2018, but it would go into effect for comptroller and legislative candidates next year. Mr. Klein is also proposing to lower the state’s excessive contribution limits for those who decide not to participate in the matching system.
Ultimately, it is the governor who must assume the leading role and meld these proposals into a workable new law. He has repeatedly said he favors the public financing of state campaigns, and this week he said he was “keen to seize the moment” to reform Albany after the latest round of political scandals. But a broad, all-purpose omnibus reform will not count for much without the centerpiece.