New York Times
February 2, 2014
Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to make the fight against corruption in Albany a major theme in his re-election campaign this year. Given the arrests, convictions and accusations of misbehavior involving state legislators in recent years, that makes sense. And to show he’s serious this time, the governor has announced a package of reforms, including public financing of elections, as part of his 2014-15 budget. His task now is to persuade the Legislature to go along. It won’t be easy, but he should be ready to campaign against any lawmaker, Democrat or Republican, who resists these crucial reforms.
New York’s campaign financing system is a scandal, as the governor knows firsthand. Of the $35 million his own campaign has already raised, less than 1 percent has come from donors giving less than $1,000, according to an analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group. Nearly 20 percent comes from out of state. A relative handful of donors, 240 or so, have given more than $40,000; one developer, using a series of limited liability corporations, has given $800,000. Yet it all appears to be perfectly legal under the state’s loose laws.
This makes it even more important for Mr. Cuomo to demand a better system. That, in turn, means new laws tightening limits on contributions, ending the party “housekeeping” accounts that are nothing less than slush funds, and requiring tougher enforcement of campaign finance laws.
By far the most important reform, however, would be public financing of campaigns using a closely monitored system like New York City’s. So far, Republican leaders, including Dean Skelos in the State Senate, have said no, arguing, disingenuously, that it would cost taxpayers too much to provide matching funds for small contributions. They do not seem the least bit concerned about the heavy costs to taxpayers when special interest groups contribute thousands of dollars and reap millions in tax breaks.
The real reason lawmakers resist public financing has less to do with taxes than self-preservation. As New York City’s experience shows, public financing of candidates would almost certainly invite more competition and require incumbents to fight harder to keep their jobs. That’s the last thing many Albany veterans want.
Mr. Cuomo has proposed a good package. Public financing for legislative campaigns would begin in 2016 and apply to statewide races two years later. But he keeps suggesting that legislators will not let him pass these important reforms. That’s balderdash. The governor has the tools and the clout to make it happen, not least his control over the budget.
Moreover, there are legislators who recognize it’s time to clean up the Capitol; majorities in both houses have released or supported versions of this crucial reform. There are differences, but instead of using them as an excuse to do nothing, the governor should force lawmakers to iron them out and move forward to a public financing law to make New York voters proud.