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Governor raises stakes in campaign finance reform bid

Gov. Cuomo renews call for overhaul of election spending rules, including public financing rejected by GOP leadership

A year after Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised ambitious campaign finance reform, only to encounter stiff resistance in the state legislature, he renewed his call in Wednesday’s State of the State address with a vow to seek public financing of elections, reduce campaign contribution limits and increase enforcement of election finance laws.

And he added a twist: under what Cuomo said would be the “nation’s most aggressive disclosure law,” all political and lobbying contributions would have to be disclosed within 48 hours.

“We must enact campaign finance reform because people believe that campaigns are financed by someone else at exorbitant rates,” said the governor this afternoon in Albany’s Empire State Plaza Convention Center to the very members of the Senate and Assembly whose campaign spending would be altered under his proposal.

The state’s current regulations usually require disclosure every six months, with more frequent filing in the weeks leading up to and following elections.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo at today’s State of the State address in Albany. AP Photo/Mike Groll

“On paper it sounds like a good idea,” said Bill Mahoney, research coordinator at New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG). “We need more disclosure in this state. We are lagging behind many other levels of government.”

The governor’s proposal for public financing would mirror the system already in place in New York City. Under the city’s rules, donations up to $175 from individual New Yorkers are matched six-to-one.

Cuomo’s enthusiasm for publicly financed campaigns was welcomed by advocates, including Common Cause/NY, which stated in a press release that the city’s system produces competitive elections while “the rest of the state suffers under outrageously high contribution limits and resulting high rates of incumbency.”

In last year’s legislative session publicly financed campaigns met strong resistance from some members, including Senate Republican Conference Leader Dean Skelos, who says he will oppose publicly funded campaigns in this year’s session as well.

“The Senate has supported reforms in the past to increase transparency and accountability so the public knows who is contributing to candidates and how much they are contributing,” said Skelos today in his response to Cuomo’s State of the State address.  “However, I do not support using taxpayer dollars to fund political campaigns.”

Skelos claimed that such a system could cost $200 million, money that he contended would be better spent on education. In a report released earlier this week, NYPIRG calculated that publicly funded campaigns would cost far less, probably between $34 million and $68 million, depending on the number of small donors that participated.

The state’s campaign finance system is riddled with loopholes, including high contribution limits that allow donors to give more money to candidates running for state office than those running for federal office. The state’s rules also allow contributions from limited liability corporations, a loophole that renders the corporate and individual giving limits meaningless.

New York also has lax disclosure laws regarding independent expenditures. Last elections, third-party groups dropped millions of dollars into races for state office. Some groups, like the state teachers union, announced the amounts they spent. However, groups such as Common Sense Principles, a Virginia-based organization that sent a flurry of negative campaign mailers to trashing Democratic senate candidates, made no such disclosures, leaving the identity of the group’s members, as well as the sum total of their expenditures, a mystery.

The governor announced today he plans to improve disclosure of independent expenditures by expanding the types of elections communications that must be reported to the state.

Although some of the governor’s proposals are likely to meet opposition in the legislature, Mahoney remains optimistic that reform is possible: “The governor has shown that he’s capable of getting bills though that [the legislature] seems opposed to.”

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