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Calls for public campaign finance system include a Moreland Commission co-chairman

Advocacy groups are encouraged by recent statements made by the co-chairman of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission, who says he now favors public financing of political campaigns.

Syracuse-area Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick is the co-chairman of Cuomo’s Moreland Act Commission, and says he has become a convert to using public funds to finance political campaigns.

Fitzpatrick made the comments during an interview with the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. He says the benefits would outweigh having to ask taxpayers to foot the bill.

“The savings ultimately would be astronomical,” said Fitzpatrick. “When you eliminate that pay-to-play mentality.”

Fitzpatrick says he doesn’t know if the Moreland Commission will recommend a public campaign finance system when it issues a preliminary report in December. He says there are 24 commissioners on the panel who hold diverse opinions.   

Karen Scharff, with Citizen Action, is part of a coalition advocating for a statewide public campaign finance system. She says Fitzpatrick’s support is good news.

“I hope that under his leadership and the leadership of the other co-chairs, the commission as a whole will come to the same conclusion," Scharff said. “Because honestly, the Moreland Commission will be a failure unless they really do recommend systemic reform.”

Cuomo has also pushed for public campaign finance reform for statewide campaigns, modeled on the New York City system. It allocates public money to candidates who collect small contributions from donors, based on a six-to-one matching system. But Cuomo’s bill was rejected by Republicans in the legislature.

GOP Assemblyman Bill Nojay says it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money. He says the public would not stand for current standards that allow some candidates to abuse their campaign funds.  

“I don’t think taxpayers in New York state would tolerate for a heartbeat their hard earned tax dollars being spent on leases on luxury automobiles, conferences in warm climates,” Nojay said. “That’s not how taxpayer dollars should be used.”  

In the Assembly, Republicans are in the minority with two thirds of the seats currently held by Democrats. But in the state Senate, Republicans control the chamber, along with several independent Democrats, and they successfully blocked the public campaign finance bill in the past legislative session.  

Fitzpatrick says he was disturbed by the lax rules governing how campaign funds can be spent. He says candidates often submit very vague reasons for their use of, in some cases, huge sums from their campaign war chests.

“We’re not talking about $50 for dinner or $100 for a round of golf,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re talking about thousands and, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars, in unspecified reimbursements.”  

Nojay says the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision prohibits limits on campaign spending by outside groups, so he believes there’s no way to totally eliminate the influence of money in politics. Fitzpatrick says he also sees some problems created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which he calls the elephant in the room.  

Nojay, a freshman Assemblyman from the Rochester region, says he is appalled by Albany’s pay-to-play culture, but he has a different solution for curbing corruption. He says government should stop interfering with private business interests.

“As long as there’s a bag of cash on one side of the table, and special interests on the other side, and government officials playing referee and divvying it up, you’re going to have corruption,” Nojay said. “It’s as old as human kind.”

The Moreland Commission is charged with coming up with ideas for campaign finance reform, but it also has the power to investigate potential wrong doing by elected officials. Several subpoenas have been issued and Fitzpatrick says the commission has already discovered criminality that it will detail in its report next month, for referral to prosecutors.

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.