ALBANY, N.Y. — There are few people in scandal-shocked Albany arguing these days that the current system of campaign finance and ethics checks are ideal or even functional.
And yet legislating ethics and campaign finance reform is still being played as a political game, where each side tries to ratchet up support for its own agenda to give their members the greatest benefits and the least troublesome restrictions, while boosting the ability of special-interest allies to influence legislation and elections.
Even Albany’s steamrolling governor, Andrew Cuomo, has held back from pushing groundbreaking reforms — instead proposing piecemeal bits of reform legislation that in turn have been privately derided by legislators.
“He just wants us to pass something so all this doesn’t stick to him,” said one legislator, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to anger the Cuomo administration. “Will the public think his proposals will get the job done? I can’t say for sure.”
Reform groups are also a bit put off by Cuomo’s proposals.
“His bills are steps in the right direction, but true reform would reduce the amount of illegal behavior by elected behaviors, and not just make it easier to catch or penalize them,” said Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Group. “Whatever his final reform proposal is should include components such as public financing, and we hope that it is made public with enough time for New Yorkers to read them and weigh in.”
Reformers say change is not only needed, but being demanded by the public following the arrests in recent weeks of three state lawmakers and the revelations that two other lawmakers wiretapped their colleagues for federal investigators looking into allegations of public corruption. Federal prosecutors have hinted that at least a half dozen other state lawmakers may be under investigation.
Fair Elections for New York, an umbrella organizations of groups that support campaign finance reform, has touted a recent Global Strategy Group/Mercury Public Affairs poll that found major dissatisfaction among New Yorkers with corruption in Albany and overwhelming support for public financing of campaigns.
The poll found 80 percent of independents, 75 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans support Fair Elections for New York’s proposal calling for public matching funds for small donations, lower contribution limits and the disclosure of spending by outside groups.
Mahoney and many of his colleagues in good government including Citizen Action, Common Cause, and The Brennan Center, advocate adopting the New York City style of public campaign financing where candidates have to raise a certain amount of money to earn a matching amount of public funds. If rules aren’t followed, candidates lose the right to public funds.
Good government groups also say that reforms need to be made to the existing Board of Elections system so that if a public financing system was created candidates would not be able to opt out and enjoy the largesse of the current system.
NYPIRG issued a report on May 7 that showed over 1,000 violations of campaign finance law since 2011. It was just the latest in a stream of reports from the group that demonstrated that the State Board of Elections is either incapable or unwilling to fine and punish groups that violate the state’s campaign finance laws.
Cuomo has advocated creating an independent watchdog to oversee the current Board of Election to ensure enforcement by the otherwise partisan board. He also favors tightening donation regulations, empowering local district attorneys to prosecute legislative corruption, tightening the definition of a bribe and stopping party leaders from having the exclusive power to give their lines to candidates.
Conspicuously absent from that list is public campaign financing, which Senate Republicans vehemently oppose — and even held a hearing last week billed as a look at how the New York City's public campaign finance system doesn't work.
“Right now we haven’t been making significant progress. Public financing, they don’t agree,” Cuomo told reporters on Wednesday. “They don’t think that’s the answer. The Senate Republicans don’t believe in it. It is not about numbers and cost, it’s about philosophy they don’t think public financing makes it better. There is a sentiment that public finance could make it worse.”
A number of supporters of the public financing model were not allowed to testify at the Senate Republicans’ hearing last week, while others who did get invited to speak were national figures like David Keating, of the Virginia-based Center for Competitive Politics (the nonprofit bills itself as “the nation’s only organization dedicated solely to protecting First Amendment political rights.”)
While admitting he had no basic knowledge of how much corruption existed in the city or state system, Keating praised Oregon’s system where there are no campaign finance limits. He repeatedly warned that with public financing, taxpayers could end up funding neo-Nazi candidates.
Others who testified, such as former Rudy Giuliani Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro, testified about what flaws he thought could be fixed if New York State were to adopt the model.
Republican Sens. Kathy Marchione and Greg Ball repeated that they felt taxpayers would not want to foot the bill for elected officials to run. Ball continually invoked the name of wealthy businessman George Soros to say that billionaires could subvert the system and opt out of public financing and run on their own cash.
On the same day as the hearing, the Democrat-dominated State Assembly passed its campaign finance bill, which would create a 6-to-1 public matching system like New York City’s but it would not end “housekeeping” accounts that allow corporations to dump unlimited cash to each conference.
The bill also would not restrict the ability of party heads to award their lines to candidates. This is seen as a favor to the Working Families Party, which supports progressive causes, is backed by labor and is a strong ally of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
The Senate Republicans’ partners in governing, the Independent Democratic Conference, came out in full support of a public financing of campaigns after one its four members, state Sen. Malcolm Smith, was indicted in a scheme to buy a spot on the Republican ballot for mayor in New York City.
The IDC plan, perhaps the most comprehensive out of any proposal, would ensure that any candidate who opted out of the public finance system would have to abide by strict contribution limits that would lower the donation ceiling to $2,600 in all state races.
The current donation limits vary by position and committee but New York’s have been going up rather than down because the BOE sets the limits based on a formula that is updated each year.
The current contribution limit to campaign committees is around $100,000, while the limit for statewide races is around $40,000. Campaign committees have abused state donation limits by taking massive contributions from corporations and then funnelling them to individual candidates. The IDC plan would close this loophole and end the the ability of party heads to hand their line to one candidate.
The IDC have been holding a series of hearings across the state on campaign finance reform and Cuomo has even hinted that the future of campaign finance reform relies on their willingness to push the issue.
But Republican Sen. Dean Skelos, who shares power in the Senate with the IDC’s Jeff Klein, has indicated he is not willing to bring campaign finance to a vote; and Klein has not indicated he will try to force a vote.
“I think there is an opportunity if you count heads between the Senate, Assembly and governor to come to a very serious small-donor, ethics reform package,” said Democratic state Sen. Liz Krueger, who sits on the elections committee. “And yet, I don't hear Dean Skelos saying he is willing to discuss any of this. The question is, ‘Do the votes count? Or do they only count when Dean Skelos and Jeff Klein agree they should count?'”
Klein is one of the Legislature's most prodigious fundraisers, having mastered the current campaign laws. Questions have been raised about some donations to Klein. In December 2012, Klein returned some donations after the Riverdale Press in the Bronx reported that some of the money was linked to donors with felony convictions and "ties to organized crime." There was never any evidence, the newspaper reported, that favors were granted in exchange for donations. Klein's office didn't respond to requests for comment for this story.
For Senate Republicans, the issue may not be about public support or philosophy as Cuomo says. The issue may be based on survival.
As Republicans experience a major decline in party rolls around the state, they rely more heavily on major donations from corporations.
“Report after report shows massive corporate donations benefit the Senate Republicans,” said Jessica Winsnewski of Citizen Action. “Big money goes where power is. Senate Republicans are protecting the status quo rather than bringing real people's voices into the process."
A November 2012 report by the Center For Working Families showed that, at the time, 49 of the state’s 62 senators got more than half their campaign cash from corporations and donors who contributed $1,000 or more. The top 10 recipients of corporate cash in the Senate were Republicans including Sens. Skelos and Tom Libous, the report said. The exceptions are Sen. Jeff Klein and Buffalo Democratic Sen. Tim Kennedy. In terms of percentage of funds raised through corporate donations, Republicans make up the entire top ten.
Senate Republicans, however, have insisted that bad actors will do bad things no matter what system is in place and taxpayers should not be on the line to fund campaigns.
Senate Democrats have offered a plan that would greatly restrict the use of campaign funds, bar them from being used to fund legal defenses, take away pensions from convicted lawmakers and require lobbyist’s donations be specially marked on contribution disclosures.
Their plan, like the Assembly’s, does not address the ability of party heads to give their line to candidates — again seen as a sign of their relationship with the Working Families Party which endorses and helps elect many Senate Democrats.
Assembly Republicans have a similar proposal that would restrict use of campaign funds and rescind pensions but the centerpiece of their proposal would create a recall system for elected officials. A recall campaign could be started if a group secured the signatures equaling 20 percent of the number of voters who voted in the official’s last election.
The tool could be quite a powerful one for the Assembly minority because grassroots campaigns could be started to recall a legislator who faces legal trouble or simply because they pushed for an unpopular measure.
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb is steadfastly opposed to public financing of campaigns.
“Look at John Liu and the irregularities with his fundraising, and he is using the public system,” Kolb told the Gazette. “You also have the problem of having only rich people being able to run for public office. Bloomberg can write a check and go after a legislator who did something he didn't like. He can take the regular guy right out of the mix.”
Last week, Cuomo invoked his oft-repeated threat to call a Moreland Commission that would have unprecedented powers to investigate the legislature if a deal isn’t reached for an campaign finance overhaul. “We don’t have any agreement thus far but we will keep talking. There are other options where I can move unilaterally,” Cuomo told reporters.
But with several federal investigations already underway that may not be much of a threat anymore.
Politically, Cuomo may not be able to carry the load of public financing. His poll numbers have dipped this year as he pushed through gun control laws and has taken more liberal policy stances.
As much as Cuomo may push the IDC to convince the Senate Republicans, the IDC doesn’t have much recourse for retaliation since they are even less likely now to leave the Republicans with key Senate Democrats possibly facing corruption investigations. The IDC, of course, already had to deal with its association with Smith.
Without functional support in the Senate, Cuomo will be left getting the scraps the Legislature throws him. Still, the governor has made it clear he just wants legislators to act on something — anything — to reassure the public.
“We need to say to the people of New York, ‘To the extent that you have a question about the integrity of our government we have an answer,’” Cuomo told reporters on May 8. “I’m not willing to let the session conclude without a response.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story inaccurately reported that state Sen. Jeff Klein had faced "ethical questions" over his campaign fundraising. The story should have said that questions were raised about donations made to Klein in December 2012 in a Riverdale Press report. Klein returned the money.