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Campaign finance reform likely a hot topic in 2013

Karen Dewitt

It now seems clear that 2013 will be the year in which campaign finance reform will be debated in Albany. But it’s not clear yet what shape the legislation will take, or whether public financing of campaigns will be included. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he’s putting campaign finance reform at the top of his list of priorities for the new session, saying he intends to introduce a comprehensive proposal at his State of the State speech on January 9.

“We have a hodge podge quilt of rules and regulations that apply to lobbying and campaigns that make no sense,” Cuomo said. “And people get to hide in the shadows. So we’re going to put together a fundamental reform.”

Competing proposals

In recent days, the Governor and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman seem to be competing over proposals to close loopholes that have led to the rise of what critics call “dark money” in elections.

An estimated hundreds of millions of dollars was spent by outside groups in the 2012 elections. They formed as nonprofits under a tax exemption known as 5014(c). The entities were originally supposed to be for social welfare purposes, and do not have to disclose donors or amounts of money they spend on electioneering.

Schneiderman has proposed requiring the nonprofits based in New York to make public their donors and any money they spend over $10,000 to influence state and local elections. 
Cuomo says he’ll require the not for profits that are based anywhere  in the U.S. to disclose their donors and detail what how they spend their money.

Karen Scharff, with the government reform group Citizen Action, is encouraged by the proposals.
“That’s great,” Scharff said. “It’s really important.”

Citizen Action and other groups are pushing for public financing of campaigns as part of the reforms. They would like the state to adopt New York City’s system of government funded matching grants for candidates, who collect small donations for individual donors.

In or out?
Gov. Cuomo could not guarantee that public financing of campaigns would be in the final legislation  that is ultimately agreed to by the legislature, though he says he considers public financing “very important,” and  says that it will be an “integral piece” of his plan.

Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, who will be in charge of the Senate in January, along with the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, cast doubt on whether public financing would be part of any campaign reforms.

“My concern is that when we’re dealing with deficits, you’d have potentially $200 million in taxpayer dollars going to be spent on campaign financing,” Skelos said.

Skelos says he is interested in reforms that bring transparency to the campaign donation system.

Scharff, with Citizen Action, disputes Skelos’ numbers.  She says the cost to taxpayers would likely be closer to $40 million dollars a year, or $2 per taxpayer. She remains optimistic that public campaign financing will in the end be part of the package.

“The governor has the political power and skills to get the legislation passed,” Scharff said. “And we have the grassroots organizing structure to back that up and put the needed pressure on the Senate.”

State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat who is part of the mainstream Democratic conference, which will presumably be in minority party status in the new Senate next year, isn’t so sure. She says the new Senate coalition of 30 Republicans and five Democrats will make it less likely that progressive legislation, including public financing of campaigns, will pass.

“That’s what I suspected would be the story,” said Krueger. “But it’s happening much  more quickly than many of us realized.”

The State Assembly will also need to be part of any talks on campaign finance reform. Democrats in the majority there have favored a number of reforms, including public financing of campaigns, for many years.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.