On Campaign Finance Reform, Senate Republicans Stand in Gov. Cuomo's Way

If our elected officials are to be truly representative of the populace, we need to get a larger, more diverse pool of donors to participate in the campaign financing system. We must also stop the unlimited flow of big money into politics.
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Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos repeated his opposition to Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposals for campaign finance reform last week, setting up another battle between the Governor and state Republicans.

In his State of the State address earlier this month, Governor Cuomo laid out his agenda for campaign finance reform: lowering contribution limits, closing loopholes that allow donors to get around these limits, toughening reporting requirements, and implementing a system of publicly financed campaigns.

Skelos expressed concern over Cuomo's proposal for publicly financed campaigns, suggesting that the cost to the taxpayer would be too high.

"I think that public financing is not the way to go," he argued. "I think when you explain to people, 'Do you really ... want to be paying for campaigns in New York City, primaries and general elections?' I think many of them would say no."

But there are two ways in which Skelos' statement departs from reality. First, New York's voters do support publicly financed campaigns by a margin of 59 percent to 36 percent, according to a recent Siena College poll. This support runs deep through all areas of the state, from the city to Upstate.

Second, Skelos' estimate of the cost of publicly financed campaigns is greatly exaggerated. Cuomo's proposal would provide candidates with a six-to-one match of contributions up to $175. Skelos has stated that this system would cost taxpayers $200 million. Research from the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute shows that it would be much lower, around $25 to 40 million, and that's only during a years with a gubernatorial campaign.

What New Yorkers would get for their money is less reliance by candidates on large donations -- to reduce the influence of big money in politics. Instead of courting a few well-funded donors, candidates would be encouraged to collect a large number of small donations. This is just what happened in New York City after public financing was put in place.

While Skelos has only voiced his opposition to public financing, there are several other components to Cuomo's campaign finance overhaul. Another key reform is to close loopholes that allow individuals, businesses, and unions to get around the state's already sky-high contribution limits.

Consider the $1 million donation made to the Republican Senate committee by New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg last year. While contributions to individual candidates are restricted to $5,000 dollars a year, Bloomberg was able to skirt these limits by giving to the Republican committee's "housekeeping" account. Under state law these accounts are meant to support the committee's general operations, but in reality this money from housekeeping accounts often finds its way into the hands of individual candidates. You might call it a form of political money laundering.

Cuomo also recommends strengthening the state's lax reporting requirements. The point is to better track contributions made to PAC's, lobbyists and non-profits that, since the Citizen's United decision, may then spend unlimited amounts on "issue ads" and other political activities. Skelos may be on board with Cuomo on this issue, hinting that he is in favor of increasing "transparency." Just how far Skelos is willing to go is not yet clear. Additionally, Attorney General Eric Schniederman has called for better reporting of the spending of PAC's and other groups. Where the money goes is just as important as where it comes from.

It is still far from clear whether Cuomo will get all of his campaign reforms through the Senate. These issues have been on the state's agenda since Andrew Cuomo's father, Mario Cuomo, created the State Commission on Government Integrity in 1987. Nearly 25 years ago the commission released its report calling the state's campaign finance system "disgraceful" and its regulations "embarrassingly weak." Today that system is nearly unchanged.

A lot is at stake. Money talks, and in this case it largely decides who is elected to state office. Do these elected officials truly represent our interests? We could use Sate Senator Dean Skelos as an example. Claiming to speak for the voters, he has stated that he opposes publicly financed campaigns. But voters favor public financing, just like they support a hike in the minimum wage -- another proposal that Skelos opposes.

If our elected officials are to be truly representative of the populace, we need to get a larger, more diverse pool of donors to participate in the campaign financing system. We must also stop the unlimited flow of big money into politics. If Cuomo can force these reforms through, New York may finally have a democracy that its citizens can be proud of.

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