Capital New York
January 22, 2014
ALBANY—Gov. Andrew Cuomo included a proposal for public financing of political campaigns in his budget address on Tuesday, the first step in what reformers hope will be a concerted effort to overhaul the current system.
“People are believing in New York,” Cuomo said in his remarks. “The one omission is ethics, and it’s the one negative they hear over and over and over because it’s a drip, drip, drip of these negative one-off stories and it has to be addressed.”
Cuomo said he intends to include funds for a six-to-one small-donor matching system for campaigns in the state’s $137.2 billion budget.
“I’m encouraged with the focus on ethics and campaign finance reform,” said Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, a Rochester-area Democrat. “I want to see the specifics, but it’s an important part of what we have to do both in the budget and the rest of the session, so I’m encouraged by it.”
The Democratic majority in the Assembly has supported public financing of elections, but the effort has stalled in the Senate, and led some to question Cuomo’s commitment to the cause.
Last year, the Independent Democratic Caucus backed a different version of the legislation, but the two chambers never reconciled on a single bill.
“I’m glad the governor is still talking about it, and glad he included it in his budget because I think it’s very important that we achieve campaign finance reform, especially with a public match,” said I.D.C. leader Jeff Klein of the Bronx.
If the four-member Independent Democratic Conference in the Senate and the Democratic Conference can agree on public financing measures with the Assembly Democrats, that could overcome the objections of Republicans, who have consistently opposed public financing.
“It’s $200 million in taxpayer money to pay for robocalls people hate, or to support candidates they disagree with philosophically,” said Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos. “It is wrong and the money would be better spent on education, infrastructure improvements and pre-K.”
Assembly Republicans echoed Skelos’ objections.
“I didn’t vote for the  Fair Elections Act because I thought it was too skewed toward the incumbents,” said Republican Assemblyman Mark Johns of the Rochester area. “I do believe in alternative public financing of campaigns, but I don’t want to mix [private] money with public money. It should be an either or alternative.”
Republican Assemblyman Kieran Lalor of Orange County feared public dollars could lead to even more corruption.
“This law would keep all the big fundraising loopholes,” he said.
Cuomo also called for restrictions on state party housekeeping committees, which can collect unlimited donations for party infrastructure, but instead funds are frequently transferred to other committees. He proposed a $25,000 contribution limit to these accounts, and a $500 transfer limit to candidates.
In his proposed budget, Cuomo also called for $5.3 million for the New York State Board of Elections to create an enforcement arm. The Board recently came under fire by the Moreland Commission, a panel appointed by Cuomo, which found that the board rarely enforces election laws that are on the books.
“It certainly is a step forward, there’s a long way to go,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “The budgetary issue which will be the test is the issue of this campaign finance enforcement agency, because it’s going to be a hard sell to the legislature and the public to flush more money down the drain.”