The New York Times
January 20, 2014
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seeking to prod recalcitrant lawmakers to take action after a rash of embarrassing corruption scandals in Albany, plans to use his budget proposal this week to push for approval of new ethics laws and a public financing system for state political campaigns, administration officials said.
Mr. Cuomo, who has sought to position himself as a centrist Democrat and has collected millions of dollars in campaign cash from real estate developers and other wealthy donors, has faced persistent calls from the left wing of his party to be more forceful in demanding an overhaul of New York’s lax campaign fund-raising laws, a top priority of liberals who hope that sweeping changes in Albany could provide a model for other states.
The pressure on the governor is growing. This month, New York City inaugurated a new mayor, Bill de Blasio, who has been a vocal critic of corporate money influencing politics. And on Thursday, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a national hero to liberals, is scheduled to visit Manhattan to speak about money in politics along with one of Mr. Cuomo’s in-state rivals, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.
As he prepares to seek re-election this fall, Mr. Cuomo is also aiming to address concerns from voters. The series of scandals involving legislators, who have been accused of malfeasance including taking envelopes stuffed with cash and groping young female staff members, have threatened to undercut Mr. Cuomo’s claim to have restored order to the state’s dysfunctional government.
The proposals in Mr. Cuomo’s budget include measures intended to strengthen criminal statutes relating to bribery, tighten loophole-ridden campaign fund-raising laws and require legislators who hold second jobs outside the Legislature to disclose more about their work, according to the administration officials. They requested anonymity in discussing the proposals before the governor releases his spending plan on Tuesday.
One of the administration officials said on Sunday that Mr. Cuomo “believes that government is limited by the lack of public trust, and it must be restored.”
“The governor,” the official said, “is going to use every tool at his disposal to enact top-to-bottom ethics reform.”
Most of what Mr. Cuomo is proposing in his new budget will not actually cost money in the next year, aside from about $4 million that would be added to the budget of the State Board of Elections to pay for the creation of an independent enforcement office for election-law violations.
But by including the proposals in his spending plan, Mr. Cuomo is trying another tactic in his effort to cajole lawmakers into approving them. At the very least, legislative leaders will be forced to answer questions about ethics for the duration of budget negotiations, which must be completed by April 1.
Mr. Cuomo first proposed many of the ethics and campaign finance proposals last year, after the arrests of several lawmakers in corruption scandals. When lawmakers ended their session in June without passing the measures, he followed through on a threat to appoint an investigatory commission to root out corruption, known as a Moreland Act Commission, which in December released a report calling for changes to the state’s elections, ethics and campaign finance laws.
But the panel’s work did not prompt a deal with legislative leaders, as Mr. Cuomo had hoped. In his State of the State address this month, he repeated his call for new laws, calling his ethics plan “an acknowledgment of the problem and an acknowledgment that we need to fix the system.”
“Ethics reform,” the governor said, “says to the people of this state: ‘Yes, I saw the news articles, too, and it bothers me and I’m troubled by it, and we’re going to pass ethics reform because we’re going to change the system.’ ”
The most politically contentious proposal that Mr. Cuomo plans to include in his budget is an overhaul of New York’s campaign fund-raising laws.
Mr. Cuomo will propose putting in place a public matching system for state political campaigns modeled after the one used in New York City, where individual contributions up to $175 are matched at a $6-to-$1 rate with public funds. Candidates for the State Senate and State Assembly would be eligible to receive public funds in 2016, and candidates for governor, attorney general and comptroller in 2018.
Democrats who have a large majority in the State Assembly support public financing. But the State Senate is controlled by a coalition of Republicans and an independent faction of Democrats, and the Republicans have been vigorously opposed to public financing.
The leader of the Senate Republicans, Dean G. Skelos of Long Island, has described public financing as a poor use of taxpayer funds, saying that voters do not want their hard-earned money going to support the campaigns of candidates with whom they disagree.
“They’d rather see that money spent on education, on pre-K, on our infrastructure or on tax cuts,” Mr. Skelos said in an interview on WNYC this month.
But advocates of public campaign financing, undeterred by the Republicans’ opposition, have been lobbying Mr. Cuomo to include it in his spending plan.
On Thursday, more than two dozen groups, including the Working Families Party, Common Cause New York and the powerful health care union 1199 S.E.I.U., sent a letter to Mr. Cuomo saying that the budget process “allows the best opportunity for making campaign finance reform a reality in 2014.”
Mr. Cuomo has advocated campaign finance reform while using the current laws to his advantage. He has been wildly successful raising money under the current system, and has simultaneously benefited from fund-raising loopholes and proposed closing them. On Wednesday, he reported having $33 million on hand for his re-election campaign.
In a radio interview on Friday, Mr. Cuomo defended his prolific fund-raising and said passing new fund-raising laws would be one of his top priorities this year.
“Let’s reduce the amount of money in politics so this unseemly appearance is remedied — whether or not the unseemly appearance actually makes a difference in a person’s behavior,” Mr. Cuomo said on “The Capitol Pressroom,” a public radio show.
“I’m confident about my behavior,” the governor added. “Am I going to vouch for everyone’s behavior? No.”