New York’s effort to lead the nation against big money interests in politics and cap Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s progressive agenda is now mired in the fractious Senate with just two weeks left in the legislative session.
Cuomo and Democrats who control the Assembly and share control of the Senate have worked for two years to create a voluntary system of public funding campaigns. Cuomo released a bill Tuesday that would use public funds to provide $6 for every $1 a candidate raises. The idea is to limit the influence of wealthy special interests while opening politics to more people who aren’t independently wealthy or dependent on donors and party bosses.
But with strong opposition by Senate Republicans, Democrats are scrambling to save the measure seen as a national test to combat the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United. It ushered in a new era of big-money politics when the court decided that the century-old federal ban on corporate campaign contributions was unconstitutional because corporations enjoyed the same right to political speech as individuals.
“New York’s electoral process, campaign finance system, and our laws to prevent corruption are outdated, ineffective, and in serious need of sweeping reform,” Cuomo said. “This comprehensive package of reforms will strengthen New York’s democracy and is a major step toward restoring the public’s trust and confidence in our government.”
But Senate Republicans strongly oppose using tax dollars to finance campaigns. They estimate the cost at $200 million and say there is a better use for that money in schools and jobs programs. They have also greatly benefited from major private donors.
“I have said we are not in favor of taxpayer funding of campaigns,” Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said Tuesday morning. Asked if there was any chance he’d allow the bill to the floor, Skelos said: “No.”
Republicans, in sharing power with a breakaway group of Democrats, can keep bills from reaching the floor. But if all the Democrats unite, they can force the bill to the floor, thus circumventing the Republicans’ intentions. And on Tuesday, supporters tried to do just that.
But that strategy depended on conservative Democratic Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. of Bronx, who defies Albany’s tradition of reliably voting along party lines. On Tuesday, Diaz told The Associated Press he doesn’t support the public financing now proposed, and that he won’t participate in a Democratic attempt to force the bill to the floor over the Republicans’ opposition.
Now, the prospects of a voluntary system of public financing of campaigns that could enable average New Yorkers a way to afford seeking public office are cloudy at best.
“Lawmakers who use excuses will have the stain of corruption in their hands,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a good-government group. “The whole country is watching this legislation.”
Cuomo’s bill also proposes lower donation limits, greater disclosure of campaign and greater restrictions on use of campaign funds which some politicians have used for personal items, cars and trips. Cuomo acknowledged Tuesday that he faces stiff opposition in the Senate, and didn’t rule out dropping the public financing element of his package.