Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York lawmakers are being criticized by good-government advocates for a budget agreement that tests public campaign financing only with the state comptroller’s race, and only for one year.
"The comptroller-only plan that was passed late last night is really very flawed." Common Cause New York Executive Director Susan Lerner says it's back to business as usual with the governor's blessing.
The $140 billion spending plan signed Tuesday morning includes testing public campaign finance in the state comptroller race this year.
Common Cause stands with a list of other good-government groups expressing disappointment that the pilot program doesn't go far enough. Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, a Democrat facing re-election with no declared challenger in November, will need to decide soon whether to participate in the program. DiNapoli, a longtime proponent of public financing, once proposed to use the comptroller campaign as a trial balloon for a publicly financed campaign. In 2011, the Assembly passed a bill authorizing the experiment, but it failed to become law.
DiNapoli has reservations about the new plan. "...contributions from statewide political comittes, state comities, that's not addressed in the way that it was in our bill... limits are higher than we had first proposed... you go down the long list, just seems to be a lot of questions, very much subject to interpretation..."
The plan would use the comptroller's own unclaimed funds as a source to pump up the campaigns, and require the comptroller to sign off on spending the money, something DiNapoli contends is clearly a conflict of interest.
Alex Camarda with Citizens Union says the comptroller-only solution is really a solution to yesterday's problem. "..because corruption is centered in the Legislature and has been in recent years, that the budget should have included a more expansive public matching program, rather than the one that was passed..."
Larry Norton, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center at NYU, believes this was the best chance in a generation to deal with Albany's corrupt culture. "We're especially disappointed with the governor's decision to shut down the Moreland Commission on public corruption, which he set up to deal with the problem. They thoroughly documented the corrosive impact of big money over New York's policy decisions. Their top systemic recommendation was for comprehensive campaign finance reform including the adoption of a statewide small donor matching system."
Some observers critical of the budget provision argue it effectively sets up the comptroller, not seen as a close ally of the governor’s, as a sort of “lab rat” to be experimented with for public financing of political campaigns.
NYPIRG's Blair Horner says the program is “designed to fail." The group says if DiNapoli decides to participate, he will be required to either set aside or return 73 percent of the $2.1 million his campaign has in cash on hand. NYPIRG calculatesthe bill would force a candidate who opts in to transfer to another account or refund the portion of any donations in excess of $6,000.
In a year that sees the entire state government up for election, DiNapoli remains stymied and displeased. "...this is gonna be set up now supposedly in the near future by the State Board of Elections which has had other problems in terms of their current responsibilities. There is much that still needs to be interpreted to understand what the ground rules would be. Certainly, as we are heading very close to September, assuming that there's going to be a primary, and then November, we've been well into this cycle, this 4-year cycle of raising money, what happens to money that's already been raised?"
Larry Norton has a stern warning for New Yorkers. "Unless the governor and legislature find a way to revise the promise of campaign finance reform in the coming weeks, all of New York is going to live with the consequences of the failure."
Time will tell.