The New York Times
March 8, 2013
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Friday that he was “cautiously optimistic” that he could push through the Legislature this spring an overhaul of the state’s campaign finance laws, one of the top priorities in Albany for government reformers and progressive groups.
At the same time, he struck an uncertain note about the centerpiece of what advocates are proposing: putting in place a financing system for state elections, modeled after the one used in New York City, which matches small donations with public money. In exchange, candidates must agree to strict spending limits.
Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said the rise of independent groups’ spending enormous sums of money in campaigns has “made it more complicated” to devise such a system.
“The juxtaposition between an independent expenditure committee and public financing is truly difficult to explain,” Mr. Cuomo said. “The politicians feel a public financing system will handcuff them, and if an independent expenditure committee then parachutes into the race, they’ll be defenseless.”
The governor’s speech at a luncheon on Friday provided a preview for one of the top policy debates that is likely to come up in Albany after the state budget is completed this month. The luncheon was sponsored by the Committee for Economic Development, a business-backed policy group, and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Mr. Cuomo will also hold a conference call on Monday with supporters of overhauling the campaign finance system.
In his State of the State address in January, he pledged to push for a broad package of campaign finance changes, including the creation of a system of public financing for state elections, lower limits on political contributions and a requirement that contributions be disclosed in almost real time.
But some advocates of overhauling the state’s campaign fund-raising laws have been skeptical of how far the governor will be willing to push lawmakers, especially Republicans in the State Senate, who have opposed using public money to pay for political campaigns. Mr. Cuomo has also been extraordinarily successful raising money under the existing lax fund-raising rules.
In a 23-minute speech on Friday at the Midtown Manhattan offices of the law firm Covington & Burling, Mr. Cuomo said the good news, for advocates of campaign finance changes, was that the presidential election had raised public awareness of the flood of money in politics. He said New York State could set an example for the rest of the country in moving to combat it.
The bad news, the governor said, is that the measures he is proposing are “not a prophylactic to the basic vulnerability of Citizens United,” the Supreme Court case in 2010 that led to a surge in outside spending.
“Yes, you could come up with a very restrictive system with very restrictive limits,” he said, “and then have an independent expenditure committee come in and totally violate the spirit of what we were trying to accomplish.”
Mr. Cuomo said, politically, this year was an ideal one to try to push for changes in Albany, given that lawmakers were not up for re-election. But he warned that it would be a challenging area in which to make progress, because “this is not about changing policy that will affect someone else; this is changing a policy that affects them in their livelihood.”
In his remarks, Mr. Cuomo was particularly critical of outside groups that spend lavishly to support political candidates, saying “these ties now are so close that it really begs credibility that they’re truly independent.”
Mr. Cuomo has drawn criticism over his ties to an outside group, the Committee to Save New York, that has spent millions of dollars supporting his legislative agenda. Asked after his speech about the Committee to Save New York, Mr. Cuomo did not respond directly, but observed, “The independence line, in some cases, has been blurred.”
Speaking to reporters, he added that his primary concern was with independent groups that spend enormous sums in political campaigns “and obliterate a candidacy.”
“An independent expenditure committee comes in – ‘Americas for America’ – and spends $10 million, and nobody knows who it is or where it came from, and that, to me, distorts the system,” Mr. Cuomo said. “And when you’re trying to say to the politicians, you should have this public financing system, but there’s this alternative that could distort everything, it’s very difficult.”
Mr. Cuomo, who faces re-election next year, also discussed why he has continued to raise a large amount of money using the lax fund-raising rules that he wants to change. In January, he reported more than $22 million in his campaign account.
“The least favorite part of my job is the fund-raising part,” Mr. Cuomo said. “But until the rules are changed, I don’t have an alternative. I happen not to be independently wealthy, which would have solved a lot of problems on a lot of levels.” He added, “A rich multimillionaire says, ‘I want to be governor,’ and they’re going to spend a lot of their own money – that could be formidable.”
Mr. Cuomo said that from his point of view, lawmakers would be acting in their self-interest if they moved to overhaul the state’s campaign fund-raising system.
“Raising money is very hard,” he said. “It’s very unpleasant on a personal level. It takes a lot of time. And most politicians who have to deal with the system would be the first ones to say they want to change it.”