Blair Horner: The Governor's Historic Opportunity

Feb 24, 2014

Lawmakers return to the Capitol this week to tackle the big issue of the session: approving a state budget.  As part of that $140 billion plus decision, lawmakers will be forced to also debate a key issue: reforming the state’s campaign finance and ethics laws.

For at least 30 years, New York governors have called for sweeping campaign finance reforms.  New York has the highest campaign contributions of any state with limits.  Its disclosure requirements are weak and its enforcement essentially non-existent.

But for all that talk, Governors Mario Cuomo, George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson achieved virtually no reforms.  Lots of talk, no real action.

Governor Andrew Cuomo swept into office in 2010 promising changes – just like his predecessors.  And just like previous governors, for the first three years of his Administration, the governor talked a great deal about reforms, but achieved little.

His ethics reforms were flawed; his redistricting deal allowed gerrymandering for the 2012 elections and doesn’t make the situation better in the future.

He has talked a great game on campaign finance, but hasn’t yet scored the big win.

Until this year.

The governor included campaign finance reforms in this executive budget.  Thanks to his predecessors – in particular Governor Paterson – Governor Cuomo has unprecedented powers to drive policy changes in the budget.  While one may debate whether this is a good idea, the reality is that the legislature has limited authority to make changes to the budget advanced by the governor.

But putting his reform initiatives in the executive budget, the governor will achieve one thing that has eluded his predecessors – a real debate on campaign finance reforms, including the big reform: establishing a system of public financing.

At least on the surface, the governor has allies among the legislative leaders.  Democratic Assembly Speaker Silver and Independent Democratic Conference Senate Co-Leader Klein have both said they support comprehensive campaign finance reforms, including a voluntary system of public financing of elections.

Public financing is a necessary component of reform since without it only those who are wealthy, or have allies who are wealthy, can mount serious campaigns for elected office.  Without a voluntary system of public financing, 99% of New Yorkers are shut out from considering such a run.  Without robust elections, incumbents feel less pressure to respond to the public interest.  And we have seen what that has led to – controversies and scandals.

Only Republican Senate Co-Leader Skelos opposes the measure.  His argument, ironically, is that elected officials – like him – are undeserving of public financing.  But the impact of his opposition is limited: his conference represents a minority of the state Senate.  The members of the Independent Democratic Conference and the Senate Democratic Conference overwhelmingly support campaign finance reforms.

The Assembly has for decades approved legislation that creates a voluntary system of public financing. The legislation has always been blocked in the Senate.

There is a majority of state Senators who are Democrats.  Their leadership supports campaign finance reform.  New York is tantalizingly close to achieving meaningful changes.

The fate of campaign finance reform now is in the hands of the governor.  He took the correct first step: he put his plan in the budget.  A debate – behind closed doors – will occur.

Given the tremendous institutional power of the executive, the support of the state Assembly, and the apparent support among many Senators, the fate of meaningful campaign finance reform will hinge on whether the governor can round up the necessary Senate votes.

By April 1, New Yorkers will know how well the effort played out.  In addition to a budget that meets the health, education, safety and poverty funding priorities of the state, whether there will be real changes to Albany’s campaign finance laws will get decided.

How that plays out will be a real test for the governor.

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

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