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Politics and Government

Reform groups say failed public finance experiment should be a wake-up call to state lawmakers

Karen Dewitt
WRVO News (file photo)

The New York State Board of Elections recently issued its final report on an experimental public campaign finance system that had no participants. Government reform groups say it’s another sign that the pilot program for one race in the 2014 election cycle was designed to fail, and that politicians in New York are not yet serious about real campaign finance reforms.

The experiment in public campaign financing was conceived by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders in the spring of 2014, and hastily approved as part of the state budget. It was to apply solely to the state comptroller’s race. Comptroller Tom DiNapoli was not consulted. Reform groups condemned it at the time, saying it was too limited and came too late in the election cycle.

DiNapoli, the Democratic candidate, did not participate. And the Republican challenger, Bob Antonacci of Onondaga County, tried but failed to qualify, saying he could not meet the $200,000 threshold of small donations needed to access the matching funds.

The state Board of Elections, in a final report required by the law, had little to say.

“With no qualified participant or full program implementation, it is difficult and somewhat impractical for the Board to make comments to improve the program," the report reads.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says the outcome was predictable.

“It seemed more like a doomed pilot project than anything that would offer anything meaningful,” Horner said. “Sadly, that’s exactly what happened.”

Susan Lerner, with Common Cause, agrees, and says the whole thing was a debacle.

“This is absolutely clear confirmation that this was designed to fail,” Lerner said. “It wasn’t a test of anything.”

At the time, Cuomo said he hoped the one-time program would offer guidance on how to expand public matching funds to all statewide political races, as is done in local elections in New York City.

The government reform groups say lawmakers need to start over with a new system, based on New York City’s program which has largely been considered successful. NYPIRG and Common Cause have called for a special session on ethics, an idea Cuomo and some legislative leaders have resisted.

The governor, speaking earlier this summer, said it would be a waste of the taxpayers money.

“I haven’t heard anything from the Senate or Assembly saying ‘our minds have changed,’” Cuomo said. “For the taxpayers to spend a lot of money to bring the legislators back to Albany for the same outcome they had several weeks ago, makes no sense.”

Lerner says there’s even more urgency to act, after two top lawmakers, the Republican deputy majority leader of the Senate, and a former Democratic Senate leader were both convicted on corruption charges in the past month alone.

“The fact that they have not addressed the on going crisis of corruption in Albany is scandalous,” said Lerner. “Their constituents and the voters need to hold them responsible.”

The groups are also pushing for strict limits on lawmaker’s outside income. Both the former Senate majority leader and Assembly speaker have been arrested and accused of running scams worth millions of dollars that involved their private employment.

And they’d  like to close a loophole in campaign finance regulations that allow for donors and candidates to use Limited Liability Corporations, or LLCs to skirt the state’s contribution limits.

Horner, with NYPIRG,  say lawmakers aren’t going to be able to get away with coming back in 2016, which will be an election year for them, and trying to conduct business as usual.

“It’s a huge mistake. The public is angry at Albany, the polling tells everyone that,” Horner said. “They proceed toward the November 2016 elections at their own risk, if they choose to do nothing.”

Horner says Cuomo, who has said he’s a supporter of public campaign financing,  has the power through the state budget to push through reforms.