March 18, 2013
New York state government under Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been running more smoothly for a longer period of time than we’ve seen in decades at the State Capitol.
In general, meaningful legislation has been passed with bipartisan support over the past two-plus years. And the top charge of the Legislature and governor — adopting an annual state budget — has been done on time and with reasonable fiscal restraint for two straight years. All signs point toward that streak reaching three years before the end of this month.
All of this progress, however, has not been enough to say Albany is truly reformed from its dysfunctional past. By and large, the Legislature remains a place where rank-and-file lawmakers simply vote when and/or how their leaders tell them to. The leaders do all of the deal-making behind closed doors. And the public remains largely shut out of the process. That formula will eventually lead to a return to dysfunction.
But it’s unlikely to change without some significant turnover on the Legislature — or at least more competitive elections that require long-time lawmakers to truly get out and listen to their constituents.
Enter campaign finance reform.
Albany continues to be a place where incumbents enjoy remarkable advantages over the few challengers that do make a run for office. Much of it comes from the access legislators have to the special interests groups’ funding for their campaigns. Look at campaign finance disclosure forms for incumbents and challengers — the funding differences are almost always substantially in favor of the incumbent, and a heavy portion of their war chests comes not from small, individual donors in their districts, but from the many lobbying interests.
A campaign finance law is being discussed in Albany that would establish a voluntary public financing system that involved matching small donations and limiting overall spending.
The opposition, not surprisingly, comes from incumbents who claim it would amount to a new tax. But that can be avoided if the Legislature is smart with the budget. The state Senate earlier this month said its analysis shows there’s more than $240 million in extra revenue available for the upcoming budget — a portion of those funds could easily help get a public financing program started.
And like so many important issues over the years, New York has a chance to be a model for the rest of the country. The most recent presidential election underscored the damage being done to democracy by big-money politics.
“National progressive groups would like to see New York as a national model,” Michael Kink of the Strong Economy for All coalition told the Associated Press. “I think it fits neatly into the governor’s goals of cleaning up Albany and also showing New York can take a leadership role.”