The Albany Times-Union
April 20, 2013
State Republican leaders take on an easy target — public campaign financing.
Fixing up New York government is about more than handouts for politicians.
Here it comes, New York, about the only thing Republicans have left in their zeal to derail state government from change that could dislodge those now at the controls of a system rife with political corruption.
Money is at the awful core of the recent scandals and legislators’ arrests, of course. But no, says the GOP, public financing of election campaigns isn’t the solution.
State Republican leader Ed Cox even claims that using public funds to lure better people to run for office, in much fairer and more competitive elections, will mean more corruption. And that taxpayers will pay for it, too.
Mr. Cox — citing the very convenient and obviously appalling example of state Sen. Malcolm Smith — suggests that using government funds to subsidize political campaigns smacks of political welfare for venal politicians.
The Republicans are right to argue that public funding of campaigns is no panacea. But their reasoning is specious. What Mr. Cox and state Senate leader Dean Skelos ignore is that no one, not even the most dreamy-eyed reformers or unyielding radicals, is pushing for public financing in a vacuum. This is about much more than allowing unsavory figures to get their hands on our money.
The use of government funds for campaigns must come with some rigid rules over how that money could be spent. A candidate should have to win private contributions from many individuals before qualifying for public matching funds, in order to ensure that he or she is credible. The limits on the contributions to be matched with public funds would have to be set much lower. And there would need to be a clear beginning and end to New York’s interminable political campaign seasons.
Significantly, the farcical outfit known as the state Board of Elections would have to be reshaped so it can act as an enforcement agency at last, ever intolerant of the misuse of public funds. And the state attorney general’s office would need to be broadly empowered to crack down on such corruption as well.
These changes to a political culture that’s so thoroughly broken ideally would be accompanied by other, equally far-reaching measures — like stripping legislators of the power to draw their own districts and making it easier for people to vote and have those ballots count.
Even if they oppose public campaign financing, the Republicans would retain some credibility as reformers if they embraced other provisions of a comprehensive effort to clean up state government. Instead they prefer the easy way out — a focus on keeping public money out of a political environment they’re in no hurry to fix, while ignoring other needed reforms.
Fortunately, prospects for taking state government back from the people who profit from its dysfunction have never been better. The hollow arguments against doing so need to be exposed for what they really are — a grudging acceptance of the very corruption that Mr. Cox and the rest pretend to denounce.