If ever there was a perfect moment in New York to push for campaign finance reform, including public financing of elections, this is it. Albany has exposed its seamy tendencies so flagrantly over the past few weeks, months and years that voter disgust may finally force lawmakers to act.
Pressure is building from a number of directions, including State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli who, along with a coalition of private-sector organizations, is pushing a plan. In addition, the Assembly has already passed a measure and the Independent Democratic Conference that partnered with Senate Republicans is pushing its own measure. Any of them would mark a vast improvement.
A key point is to establish a system of public financing of elections. That would diminish, though not eliminate, the influence of big money in statewide election campaigns and, equally important, encourage participation by potential candidates who are now intimidated by a system that costs millions of dollars to access and that tilts dramatically toward incumbents.
The Independent Democratic Conference – five Democrats who aligned with Republicans to create a Senate majority – have been touring the state promoting their legislation. In addition to public matching funds for candidates who participate in the system – a 6-to-1 match for individual contributions up to $250, funded in part by unclaimed funds – their plan would also limit campaign contributions to $2,600 for all candidates for state office. It would also do away with “housekeeping accounts” that are not subject to funding limits. Corporate contributions would be banned.
The public financing proposal – which would be optional for candidates – is similar to one that has worked well in New York City elections for years.
Senate Republicans generally oppose public financing of elections, but given the entrenchment of incumbents and the havoc they have wrought, it is time to adopt that approach, especially given the Legislature’s politically driven approach to redistricting.
Much more needs to be done beyond campaign finance reform to bring New York’s corrupt politics under control. For example, the Independent Democratic Conference is also pushing to erect a barrier between campaign consultants who, after the election, suddenly become lobbyists with favors to collect.
The clock is ticking on these reform efforts. The issue is hot now, given the swamp of criminality and unethical behavior in Albany. But the current session ends on June 20 and, while there may be time later this year to pursue these matters, this is the moment to pressure lawmakers to act. Next year, an election year, will almost certainly be too late.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is pushing for reforms this year, and the Assembly is already on board. What is needed are some Senate Republicans who understand the overarching need to restore the trust of their constituents. There are many possibilities and, in Western New York, they include Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, who has already demonstrated an unusual quotient of political courage.
He and other Republican senators should join this necessary effort and put state government back on a path to respectability. It’s a long journey, but it’s time to begin it.