Commentary & Opinion
3:50 pm
Mon March 31, 2014

Blair Horner: Albany's Campaign Finance Bait-And-Switch


Once the state's political leaders got past the congratulatory "atta-boys" and backslapping on their most recent effort to reform Albany, the public was left to dig through the details of the legislative agreement.

Once again, Albany`s leadership is trying to pull a fast one.  Governor Cuomo's crowing over his agreement to establish a voluntary program of public financing for the campaign for state Comptroller hid a fatal flaw -- the program is designed to fail.

The most obvious problem is that the plan lies on the much (and deservedly) maligned 's requirement to have the state Board of Elections instantaneously set up a matching fund system during the already started 2014 election cycle.

Reformers wanted an independent "campaign finance board" to oversee the public financing system.  And they wanted to give this entity sufficient time to consider and issue regulations and develop the necessary procedures for shepherding and safeguarding the public money under its charge.  Yet Governor Cuomo’s plan -- included in the budget agreement that was unveiled at midnight on Friday-- relies on the New York State Board of Elections to administer its newly formed matching fund program.

The Board is required to make matching fund payments "as soon as it is practicable," they "shall render advisory opinions," and they are required to issue various regulations necessary to establish the matching funds program.

The Board is ill-suited to take on such tasks, much less set up an entirely new administrative system for an election cycle which has already begun. The preliminary findings of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption illustrated a stunning level of dysfunction at the Board.  The public will rightly have little faith that such an ineffective body, which the Moreland Commission revealed is beset by gridlock, patronage, and bureaucratic inefficiency, can properly administer and safeguard public moneys.  From a candidate's point of view, placing the Board of Elections in charge of this process, as Governor Cuomo's budget proposes to do, is most likely to result in a sequence of frustrating delays for any candidate who chooses to participate.  If this program is designed to be a "test run" for a broader public financing system, it seems to be designed to fail.

Recent history indicates how woefully unprepared the Board is to take on additional responsibilities, much less instantaneously set up an entirely new matching fund system. The Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011, passed in June of that year, required the Board to establish criteria for the disclosure of independent expenditures by January 1, 2012.  Despite this legal requirement, the Board's regulations covering this one issue were not finalized until October 24, 2012 - well into the heart of election season and nearly ten months late.  The end result was a product so woefully inadequate that this year's budget revisits the topic of independent expenditure disclosure.

The governor's plan also does nothing to address New York's notorious sky-high contribution limits for non-participating candidates or any of the other loopholes found in the state’s current election system.

Such a severely limited public financing system fails to address Albany's pay-to-play.  Over the past thirteen months, the unending series of controversies and scandals that has rocked Albany and the preliminary findings of the Moreland Commission illustrate the urgent need for comprehensive and systematic changes.  The significant flaws in the governor's plan show that it is not even a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, offering up flawed reforms is the MO of the Cuomo Administration.  His badly flawed ethics reform in 2011 created a hobbled watchdog, structured to fail.  Despite promises otherwise, in 2012, the governor agreed to an awful redistricting plan that gave incumbents even more protection and which left New Yorkers with the only option of keeping a lousy system in place or approving a new system that offers virtually no improvements for years to come.

And now he offers a plan that purports to establish a system of public financing, but can only fail -- if the ineffectual Board of Elections ever gets its act together to set it up in the first place.

Politicians will too often tout reforms, which upon closer inspection do nothing to change the status quo, but which initially sound good to voters.  And they will keep doing it until they start to face a backlash from voters.

There is time to get this right.  The governor and state lawmakers have not yet formerly approved this agreement.  Here's hoping that they decide to do something that really improves the state's campaign finance system, instead of trying to pull a fast one but promising reform, but cynically structuring it to fail.   No legislative bait-and-switch.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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