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Cuomo, Assembly Democrats roll out reform ideas

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At the New York State Capitol, lawmakers are scrambling to put forward plans to react to the recent twin corruption scandals involving bribery charges against a state Senator and Assemblyman. On Tuesday, it was the Assembly Democrats’ turn to weigh in. Gov. Andrew Cuomo also rolled out two more components of his own reform plan.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is proposing a public campaign financing law that would allow candidates to receive $6 in public funding for every dollar they collect in contributions. Silver says it’s important to get the influence of big money donors out of politics.

“The average citizen is finding that the cost of running for election has become too expensive,” Silver said. “We cannot allow elected public service to become the exclusive domain of the wealthy and the well connected.”

The speaker, who has sponsored a version of public campaign finance legislation since 1986, even broke protocol and debated the bills on the floor a few years back. The speaker of the house is usually limited to just presiding over the debate in the chamber.

Meanwhile, Cuomo announced two more portions of his reform agenda. The governor wants to revoke a law known as Wilson-Pakula, that permits parties to run candidates for office who are not actually members of their parties. It’s named after two legislators who sponsored it back in 1947. One of them is former Gov. Malcolm Wilson who served in the legislature at the time.  

State Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, is charged with trying to bribe Republican county chairs in New York City to convince them to invoke the Wilson-Pakula Act and allow Smith to run on the GOP ballot for mayor.

Cuomo says Wilson-Pakula creates ethical conflicts. He says in addition to the bribery accusations, candidates also exchange money to obtain ballot access by making large donations to the party coffers.

“You‘ve heard the expression ‘pay to play,'” Cuomo said. “This is pay to run.”

Assembly Democrats are not backing a repeal of Wilson-Pakula at this time, says Silver.

“I don’t think we should preclude people from running on more than one line,” Silver said. “There has to be mechanism for people to gain dual endorsements.”

The only faction in the legislature that is currently supporting a repeal of Wilson-Pakula is the break-away Democratic faction in the Senate known as the Independent Democratic Conference. Smith was a member of the IDC until he was asked to leave by the other members after the bribery charges.

Cuomo would stop short of eliminating all party cross endorsements, though. New York, unlike many states, permits so-called minor parties, like the Conservative Party and the left-leaning Working Families Party, to also endorse major party candidates and permit them to run on their ballot lines in elections. The governor says ending cross endorsements would also mean the end of those parties.

“That is a de facto elimination of the minor parties,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo would instead open up primaries to allow candidates registered in one party to run in a different party’s primary, if they wanted to. Cuomo’s proposal would also make it easier for voters to change their party enrollment so they could vote in those primaries.    

Cuomo did not present any proposals for campaign finance reform, though he says public financing of campaigns remains very important to him. Cuomo says he’s been talking with legislative leaders, and thinks writing an actual governor’s program bill at this time would only hinder a deal.

“I will give let me give you a hint, normally when we release bill language before an agreement, it means the probability of that bill passing is very, very low,” the governor said.

Cuomo says it’s sufficient to put out his goals and agenda instead.

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.