The Times Union: The Best Hope for Reform [Editorial]

The Best Hope for Reform 

The Times Union

June 16, 2013

Our opinion: The governor unveils his election and ethics reform plan in the waning days of the legislative session. It’s now or very possibly never for purging a culture of corruption.

So here’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s remedy for changing a culture of public corruption that’s gotten measurably worse in the almost three years since he was elected to clean up government. It comes, finally, with the very Legislature that’s at the core of the problem in session for just a few more days.

Short as time may be, New York needs a bill much like this — with some tweaks ­— if this state is to stand a chance of shedding a legacy of corruption.

Mr. Cuomo cuts right to the core of the problem: the obscene amount of money continuously injected into campaigns to preserve the political status quo. His solution is lower limits on campaign contributions, more timely disclosure of them and much tighter regulation of how that money is used, and a system of public campaign financing to give citizens of modest means a greater role in politics and lessen the influence of big money.

It won’t come cheap — about $166 million over a four-year election cycle, Mr. Cuomo estimates. But New York can’t afford the alternative: to keep paying the much steeper, if intangible, price of lost faith in government.

It would be so encouraging if Mr. Cuomo were both more confident and even more passionate about a reform package that he readily admits could die upon the legislative introduction he foolishly has delayed. It would help even more if Mr. Cuomo understands that rescuing New York from further civic deterioration needs to be about more than him.

This doesn’t have to be the Andrew Cuomo public integrity plan. Or the Sheldon Silver public integrity plan. Or the Jeff Klein public integrity plan — though the proposal pushed by the leader of the renegade Senate Independent Democratic Conference is a very sound plan, even better than Mr. Cuomo’s in some ways.

Mr. Klein proposes what Mr. Cuomo won’t embrace — to empower the state attorney general to prosecute violators of campaign finance laws. Mr. Cuomo is myopic if he thinks the long impotent state Board of Elections can be whipped into a credible means of enforcement. There’s no good reason not to empower the attorney general, as Mr. Cuomo himself urged when he held the job.

Yet the governor’s plan also has appealing features. It would allow the state’s district attorneys to be more zealous in fighting the same class of crimes. And it would end the loophole that treats limited liability corporations as individuals, letting rich donors get around New York’s overly generous donation limits.

This needs to be nothing short of a crusade, where the end result is a credible plan that turns several good proposals into one solid package. Otherwise, New York will be left with what ought to be called, if the status quo persists, the Dean Skelos public corruption plan.

The Senate Republican leader’s hollow arguments against the modest state investment in matching public funds for campaigns are little more than political cover for a system that effectively buys re-election for him and other potentially endangered candidates.

This week should be when New York confronts the political equivalent of critical mass, on notice as it is of corruption at a cancer-like level. And it falls most of all on Mr. Cuomo to help cure that — not by himself, nor for himself, but for the state he’s supposed to lead.

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