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Public campaign finance measure struggling to gain ground in Albany

J. Stephen Conn

A push to enact a statewide system of public campaign finance for political races appears to be floundering in New York. But advocates have not given up on a proposal that they say would change the culture of a state Capitol where many lawmakers have grown dependent on donations from special interest groups.

There have already been 125 fundraisers for legislators' election campaigns in Albany since the session began. That’s in the just 25 days when the Senate and Assembly met since January. The minimum price for an entry ticket ranges, in most cases, from $250 to $750, although Gov. Cuomo held a fundraiser in New York City March 14, where the minimum ticket cost $25,000.

Blair Horner is with the New York Public Interest Research Group, which tracks the events. He spoke on a day at the Capitol crowded with lobbyists, and other interest groups who were vying for the attention of lawmakers to get their item passed, or in some cases, killed. Horner said with the fundraisers at the same location during the evenings, it’s hard not to present at least an appearance of pay to play.

"It’s easy money," Horner said. "It’s one of the more brazen elements of New York’s disgraceful campaign finance system."

And he said it’s not the lawmakers’ constituents who attend.

"No elected official that holds a fundraiser in Albany during the week expects their constituents, from say Elmira, to hop in a car and drive up here and plunk down some money," Horner said.

Horner is an advocate of matching small donor public campaign financing, and Cuomo has released a detailed plan in his state budget. It’s based on a successful seven-to-one small donor matching program that has been in place in New York City for decades. For each dollar contributed to a campaign, the candidate receives seven dollars.

Jessica Wisneski is with the government reform group Citizen Action, which also backs the proposal. She said it would be a welcome change from the way state lawmakers currently run campaigns.

"We’re asking them to make a cultural shift," Wisneski said. "It’s not a lot to ask because it’s what the public wants."

She said a publicly financed system would not prevent anyone from raising money for their campaigns by using the current method.

But Cuomo has pulled back a bit from his support of the measure. He said earlier this month that while he still wants the provision in the final spending plan, due April 1, he would accept a partial plan. He said details, like how to fund the program could be worked out later. He said he doesn’t believe the public wants taxpayers to pay for the programs.

"Could you say 'we'll identify the financing, we'll write a law that commits to it but we'll figure out the compliance, the details, the lines afterwards'? You could probably do something like that if you couldn't get it all done," Cuomo said. "But I believe you have to commit to it in the budget."

The Democratic-led Senate and Assembly included the concept of a public campaign finance plan into their one house budget resolutions. But they did not provide any ideas for setting up a structure.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he has some second thoughts about whether the public system would work as promised.

"It’s not necessarily cold feet," Heastie said, in an interview with public radio and television. "I voted for it in 2009, but that was before Citizens United."

The 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. the FEC led to a decision that said corporations, not for profits, and unions, can spend an unlimited amount on federal campaigns, as long as they are separate from a candidate’s reelection effort.

Heastie said if a candidate’s fund raising is restricted under the public campaign finance rules, then an independent expenditure group, spending unlimited money, could swing an election.

"You don’t want to open the door to having IE’s pretty much picking your legislature," Heastie said.

Heastie said New York City elections , where the Democratic primary often determines the winner, are   simpler than statewide contests, which often involve multiple political parties.

Wisneski, with Citizen Action, remains skeptical of Speaker Heastie’s arguments. She said her group has identified at least 50 Assemblymembers who would vote yes on public financing. And she said they are spending the coming days trying to bring that number up to the 76 votes needed for passage in that house.

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.