Democrat and Chronicle
On May 2, Gov. Andrew Cuomo went on a radio show and railed against the influence of money in politics: “The power of money in this Capitol is unbelievable.”
That night, he went to Buffalo and reportedly raised $450,000 at a $5,000 a-person fundraiser for his re-election in 2014.
Cuomo says regularly that he wants to reform the state’s porous campaign finance system. At the same time, he has mastered the current one.
Good-government groups said Cuomo’s ability to raise money and harness the power of big-money donors through the Committee To Save New York, a lobbying group, illustrates the problem with New York’s lax system.
“He’s playing by the present rules, and he’s doing well under these rules,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center For Justice, a public-policy group at the New York University School of Law. “And he’s saying these rules are bad for New York, and we should change these rules.”
Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, have indicated they would like to reform the campaign-finance system before the legislative session ends in June. Yet a major overhaul appears increasingly unlikely, reform groups said.
In his State of the State address in January, Cuomo said New York should create a public-financing system based on the one in New York City, which advocates said has worked well. But Cuomo hasn’t introduced his own bill, telling reporters last month he would rather seek compromise with legislative leaders.
“You can take the public-relations track of appearing to do something and I can put out my bill and rant and rave about it — or I can actually try to get something done,” Cuomo said. “And I’m trying to actually get something done.”
Silver introduced legislation last month that would allow qualified candidates for state office to receive matching contributions of $6 for every $1 they raise on contributions of up to $250. The goal would be to encourage small donors to contribute, give candidates more money to compete and limit the influence of big donors on the system.
Bill Mahoney, research coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said Silver’s proposal is a positive step.
The measure would take effect in 2014 for the state comptroller seat, then 2016 for the state Legislature and 2018 for governor and attorney general. Candidates who participate in the system would have a contribution limit of $2,000 per contributor. It would limit how much in public funds would be available for each race, with the highest being $12 million for each candidate for governor.
Cuomo spent $28 million on his campaign in 2010 through donations. Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano spent $75 million of his own money on his failed 2002 gubernatorial campaign, a state record.
State law allows an individual to give $60,800 to a statewide candidate — the highest among states with a limit, though about a dozen states have no limit on individual contributions. Presidential candidates can receive $5,000 from an individual.
Mahoney said Silver’s bill wouldn’t stop big-money influence, but it would be curtailed.
“It would help to empower the voices of people who can’t afford to spend the millions of dollars a year that groups, like the Committee to Save New York and various public employee unions, can spend,” Mahoney said.
The public-financing system would be funded through a volunteer check-off of $5 on people’s tax returns, a 10 percent surcharge on fraud recoveries and state aid. Estimates have indicated that the program could cost the state $20 million to $50 million a year.
Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, said the state doesn’t have the money for a public-financing system. He pegged the cost at $200 million.
“I’d rather take that money, put it into education, and certainly many taxpayers throughout the state do not want to see their money going to individuals who they may not support,” Skelos told reporters last month.
If campaign-finance reform isn’t passed this session, advocacy groups said they will make it a top issue in the November elections, when all 213 legislative seats are on the ballot.
Citizen Action, a labor-backed group, planned a statewide “Knock for the 99%” campaign Saturday to push for campaign-finance reform. They planned to go door-to-door in eight Senate districts, including those represented by Republican Sens. Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, Thomas Libous of Binghamton and Stephen Saland of Poughkeepsie.
“Our communities, our children, our families and our economy can no longer withstand the overwhelming weight of influence that CEO campaign contributions have over our electoral process,” said Ivette Alfonso, the group’s president, in a statement.
Advocates for campaign-finance reform said the Committee to Save New York is an example of why the state needs to rein in the power of money in politics.
The business-backed group last year quickly spent the most of any lobbying group, a remarkable $10 million, to support Cuomo’s first-year agenda to cut state spending. Most of the money was spent on television ads.
As a result, Cuomo hasn’t spent much of his own campaign cash since he was elected. He had $14 million in his coffers, as of January, the most recent filing.
Current laws do not require the Committee to Save New York to disclose its donors. The group released records earlier this month that showed it pulled in more than $17 million in donations, including a $3 million check from one anonymous donor.
The group’s spokesman, Michael McKeon, said it would comply with whatever rules are adopted.
“We’ve always fully complied with the rules and always will,” he said.