ALBANY – As a state anti-corruption panel gets set to release its own set of recommendations for cleaning up Albany, an upstate business organization dueled with a group of government watchdogs Monday over whether taxpayer financing of political campaigns is a solution.
Unshackle Upstate, which represents business groups across upstate, said any move by the state to embrace a public campaign finance system would be unconstitutional, would be a drain on government resources that could otherwise be used to fund education or tax cuts and would do little to end corruption.
“We have a tremendous number of needs in this state. If there are extra dollars laying around, they should get applied there first and not into what we’ve determined as welfare for politicians,’’ said Brian Sampson, the business group’s executive director.
Countering a report issued Monday by Unshackle Upstate was a set of recommendations issued by the New York Public Interest Research Group, which called for a taxpayer campaign-finance system to limit the role of big donations from corporations and unions. The group also proposed lower political donation limits and elimination of political party housekeeping accounts, into which donors can dump unlimited amounts of cash to fund campaign expenses. It is seeking a top limit of $2,600, similar to federal caps, instead of the donations of up to $60,800 that big contributors can make now to statewide offices; NYPIRG noted that 87 donors have given Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo more than the state’s median income level of $56,951.
NYPIRG believes bundlers, who present checks on behalf of a group of donors, should have to be publicly identified by campaigns and that a donor’s employer should be made public – something the federal government has required for more than a generation.
It also wants a new campaign finance agency with new enforcement powers and an odd number of board members to break longstanding partisan gridlock at the state election board that can block campaign finance investigations. NYPIRG also called for tighter restrictions so politicians can’t use campaign accounts for personal use and the closing of accounts when a politician leaves office – ending the practice of lawmakers using leftover funds to help spread around donations as lobbyists.
If the package were enacted, “New York State could experience more competitive elections, stronger ethics oversight and more accountable government,’’ said Blair Horner, NYPIRG’s legislative director. “Humans being humans, there will always be crooks, but there will be more opportunity to catch them.’’
The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, which Cuomo formed after lawmakers last spring refused to go along with his proposed ethics package, including taxpayer-financed campaigns, plans to issue by Sunday its preliminary set of ideas for improving the state’s political finance system. The panel is in a fight with lawmakers over its subpoenas seeking an array of information about jobs they hold in the private sector, including the names of clients of those legislators who work on the side as lawyers. Lawmakers say the executive branch-created panel has illegally expanded its investigation into a separate branch of government.
Cuomo on Monday dismissed the Legislature’s legal argument, saying that half of lawmakers have complied with Moreland’s information requests.
“Those are the members who have nothing to hide,’’ Cuomo told reporters.
An assortment of private groups and lawmakers have been pushing the idea of taxpayer-financed campaigns for a couple of decades. Cuomo joined the effort this year.
In this year’s legislative session, the movement was blocked by Republicans who partially control the Senate; their arguments mirror those outlined in Monday’s report by Unshackle Upstate.
The upstate business group said all the public needs to do is look at corruption cases in New York City, which for years has had taxpayer-financed campaigns, though it is a voluntary system there, as evident by the millions of his own dollars that outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg pumped into his own campaigns over the years. Critics say a state system would easily top $100 million in a four-year campaign cycle.
“A publicly funded system forces each taxpayer to fund every eligible candidate, regardless of the candidate’s merit and whether the taxpayer supports their views,’’ the business group’s report said.