Rice & Fitzpatrick in the Daily News: The First, Best Way to Clean Up Albany [Op-Ed]

The First, Best Way to Clean Up Albany

The Daily News

Kathleen Rice & William Fitzpatrick

February 23, 2014

Over the past 20 years, crime rates across New York have gone down significantly. Yet there’s one place where the crime rate hasn’t budged — inside the state capitol. It seems like every month brings another corruption scandal from Albany.

This year, for the first time, New York has a chance to address one of the central causes of Albany’s problems — our rotten campaign finance system. Gov. Cuomo’s proposed budget includes public financing of elections . As officials who have investigated the darkest corners of Albany, we strongly support this proposal as the best way to immediately combat the influence huge sums of money have on our political system.

In July, the governor appointed us to serve as co-chairs of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. The commission was granted subpoena power and asked to recommend reforms to fix the problems it uncovered.

We were shocked by what we found. As bad as New York’s reputation for corruption and pay-to-play is, the reality is worse.

There were some instances of possible criminality, which we referred to appropriate law-enforcement agencies. But far more troubling were numerous uncovered legal activities that would shake anyone’s trust in our government. Unfortunately, there is nothing illegal about donating $100,000 to a politician’s reelection committee, then receiving millions in the form of a helpful tax break in a spending bill.

Due to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, the state cannot constitutionally restrict private spending on elections. So no matter how much a candidate might like to serve the voters without owing anything to anyone, he or she is going to remain reliant on raising funds from donors to run for office.

But that doesn’t mean we cannot redesign the system in order to make it much less susceptible to corruption and the appearance of corruption.

Our commission’s report proposed that the state implement a public financing system similar to New York City’s highly successful model. Each small donation would be matched by public funds — a process that effectively requires candidates to raise money from a broad base of New Yorkers, rather than from a few wealthy donors.

To our delight, two weeks ago, the governor announced that he was including public financing in this year’s state budget. This has the potential to completely remake our state’s political system.

Right now, the incentives for legislators are misaligned. Special interests want special favors, but they’re the only ones who help politicians stay in office. Our system forces legislators to choose between the good of New York and their political careers.

There’s no reason to force anyone to make that choice. Imagine how much good the government could do if our elected leaders had built-in incentives to spend more time talking to and serving their constituents rather than doing the bidding of well-connected donors?

Our state could spend more wisely, avoiding unnecessary tax breaks and boondoggles. We would spend more compassionately, helping schools and our state’s neediest and maintaining the state’s strong commitment to law enforcement. And we would probably spend less overall, without our leaders feeling pressure to curry favor with every special interest group.

The alternative is more of the same: more dysfunction, more distrust and more pay-to-play. There are other helpful proposals on the table — our commission recommended half a dozen — but public financing of elections would do the most, and work the fastest, to restore the confidence we deserve to have in our state government.

It’s time for the Legislature to prove that it’s interested in working for New Yorkers, not just New York’s wealthiest donors.

Rice and Fitzpatrick are the district attorneys of Nassau County and Onondaga County, respectively, and co-chairs of Gov. Cuomo’s Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption.

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