Pass this one, too

The Albany Times Union on campaign finance reform

March 11

Do they want to reduce the influence of big money in politics, or not?

For years, Assembly Democrats blamed New York’s failure to create a system of public financing of elections on Senate Republicans. Now, they’re blaming … Assembly Democrats.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie dropped this bomb [March 8] at a business forum, citing concerns about the state’s budget shortfall, problems with New York City’s public campaign finance system, and questions about independent expenditures — the money private groups can pour into elections with advertising and other non-campaign spending. “The members want to discuss it,” he said, but “right now there’s not 76 members who want to move forward with it in the next three weeks in the budget.”

So much for Democrats finally getting power and putting the right thing ahead of their own political interests. So much for making it easier for more people with good ideas but not a lot of money or political connections to run for office. So much for taking a major step to reduce the influence of big money in government and make small donors matter more.

We haven’t seen such a brazen bait and switch since 2010, when Senate Republicans swore an oath to support independent, nonpartisan redistricting, and then went back on their word once the election was over. Just as the Republicans suddenly came up with constitutional concerns about that idea, Assembly Democrats now fret about issues that were around well before the election: Independent expenditures have been an issue for years, and it’s no secret that a few people have tried to take advantage of New York City’s public financing system. But by and large, it works. And if there are flaws, the state could address them in a system of its own.

Mr. Heastie’s own campaign finances show how the current system rewards incumbency and why it’s such a hard habit to break. Running for an open Bronx seat in 2000, he raised just $29,000, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics. After seven terms, he pulled in almost $250,000. And in the election after he became speaker, his contributions topped $1 million, much of it in big checks from unions, lobbyists, real estate groups and other well-heeled interests — money he could in turn dole out to maintain his grip on power.

It’s worth noting that Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has more than once rejected good ideas out of concern for their cost, hasn’t pulled this from his executive budget, but is standing by his proposal for a $6-to-$1 match of small (up to $175) contributions.

If the state’s budget shortfall really is a concern, there are ways to help pay for this. Here’s one: Pass a law that says that once an election is over and the bills are paid, any money left in politicians’ campaign accounts goes into the public finance system. Right now, money sits in the accounts of retired, convicted, and even dead elected officials.

To their credit, Democrats have passed a number of other election and campaign reforms after years of seeing them blocked by Republicans. They should get out of their own way now, and pass this one, too. Or they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.

By Paul Wager

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