Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed state budget is a robust plan that, if it holds together, anticipates a surplus in two years while cutting business taxes, freezing property taxes, increasing aid to education, establishing state-paid, full-day prekindergarten statewide and holding spending growth to less than 2 percent.
As ambitious as it is, though, the heart of Cuomo’s proposal is in his continued insistence on ethics reform. He understands that New Yorkers’ trust in state government influences Albany’s ability to act, and he’s not backing off.
Thus, his budget proposal includes election oversight, new corruption laws and a requirement for officeholders to disclose outside business clients. He also proposes to create a hot line at a state ethics agency for state workers to report instances of sexual harassment – a proposal no doubt driven in part by allegations of routine misconduct by former Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak of Cheektowaga.
Most significant, perhaps, is his proposal for public financing of campaigns. It’s a controversial idea, but the fact is that it will mark a significant improvement over the wretched system now in place.
Indeed, the best argument for campaign finance reform in New York is the fundraising done by Cuomo, himself. The governor has $33.3 million in the bank to finance his 2014 re-election bid, evidence that with the corporate contribution limit at a preposterous $150,000 per year, a lot of heavy hitters are looking to curry favor.
We don’t blame Cuomo for aggressive fundraising even as he pushes for campaign finance reform. Until laws are changed, politicians need to play by the existing rules or surrender, especially with wealthy men such as Donald Trump making noises about mounting a campaign.
But the system needs to change. It is fundamentally corrupt, vacuuming up money from wealthy donors who expect not just access but results. There may be politicians able to resist the implied quid pro quo, but it defies any understanding of human nature to expect that to be the norm.
Lax campaign finance laws are one factor driving corruption in Albany. The existing laws favor incumbents and, thus, discourage able challengers who lack the resources to fund a credible campaign. Would Gabryszak have been so wanton in his behavior if he knew he faced a strong opponent? Perhaps, but you get the idea.
That’s why it was important for Cuomo to include in his budget address the publicly funded campaign finance system that he has long advocated.
Not only is that good for New York, but it’s good politics for a governor who demands reform but enthusiastically plays the existing system. As Bill Samuels, founder of EffectiveNY, observed: “Cuomo can’t have it both ways. Either he is a real campaign finance reformer or he isn’t … It’s one or the other – it can’t be both.” On Tuesday, his intentions were clear.
The proposed system of matching small donations with public funds would allow candidates without access to wealthy donors to wage effective campaigns. Opponents complain about the cost and being forced to support candidates they oppose, but what they don’t acknowledge are the intolerable costs of the current system: corruption, lack of focus on constituents, and the empowerment of special interests, including corporations, trial lawyers and unions.
New York has a lot of work to do over the coming months and in years beyond. It can’t do that work as well as New Yorkers need if voters don’t trust officeholders. Cuomo’s ethics proposals, including the public financing component, represent a big step toward increasing the level of trust.