Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the coming weeks will introduce a proposal that good-government advocates have long said would transform New York politics like nothing else: voluntary public funding of political campaigns.
Cuomo said adopting such an approach to campaign finance would reduce the huge influence of money on elections and limit the power of incumbency.
"We have a government that we can be proud of," the Democrat said in last week's State of the State speech. "Let's build on that pride, and let's have elections that New Yorkers can be proud of also."
Cuomo also seeks lower maximum donation amounts and increased enforcement by the state Board of Elections, which has been so understaffed for decades that it couldn't dent a growing backlog of accusations.
The idea isn't new. It's popular with underfunded challengers who need campaign finance reform the most to reduce a well-known incumbent opponent's campaign cash advantage, although many challengers drop the issue once they are in office. Twenty-four states have some public financing of campaigns, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In 2007, Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer said Albany must "disarm ... the army of special interests." Campaign finance reform bills surfaced every year during Gov. George Pataki's three terms, but major elements failed to gain agreement from either the Republican governor or legislative leaders.
Candidate Cuomo made it a major issue in 2010: "Current election law amplifies the voices of wealthy individuals and special interests." That urgency ended in his first, busy year in office as he developed alliances in the Legislature, where the reform has long been blocked. Last week, he mentioned the landmark idea 6,000 words into his 7,000-word State of the State speech.
Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters said under current campaign finance laws, corporations and rich benefactors dominate. In addition, the majorities of the Senate and Assembly draw election districts every 10 years that traditionally protect their power.
"This is what kept our 'incumbency protection program' in place for 50 years," Bartoletti said. "Voters have to understand that no matter what issue they care about — whether it be education, health care, property taxes, whatever — it all comes back to campaign finance."
The ability of a few to finance campaigns has contributed to Albany's worst problems. Even when the Legislature was known years ago as the most dysfunctional in the country, incumbents enjoyed a 95-percent rate of return to office. In 2010, $246 million was raised by politicians for just 216 legislative and statewide seats. Fewer than 60,000 of New York's 19 million residents donate to campaigns, which are increasingly focusing on high-cost ads, polling and high-priced strategists, while Cuomo notes New York ranks 48th among states in voter turnout.
"The existing structure creates a system in which our already weak laws are never enforced and legal deadlines are routinely ignored," said Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group. He said Cuomo, however, may have the skill to get his bill passed.
"If (Cuomo) fulfills his promise to fight for this issue in 2012, it is likely that he will find more success than his predecessors," he said.
Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York, said timing helps, too. The Occupy Wall Street movement, and its Albany contingent that had targeted Cuomo when he opposed a millionaire tax, has made a national issue of what it calls corporate control of politicians.
"If we get public financing of elections in New York it would be a very big change in how our democracy works," she said.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a lower Manhattan Democrat, said Tuesday he supports the idea, but hasn't been able to get the Senate's Republican majority on board. Campaign finance reform also wasn't passed in the 2008-2010 term, when Democrats held the Senate majority.
"I have personally sponsored public campaign financing bills since 1986," Silver said Tuesday. "It's great to have the governor as an ally on that issue. We have passed it probably 10 times in the last 20 years, and we're all for it."
The Senate Republicans, closely allied with Cuomo on fiscal issues, want to see the Democrat's bill.
"Historically, Senate Republicans have opposed using taxpayer dollars to fund political campaigns," said spokesman Scott Reif. "At this time, however, there is no specific proposal from the governor to comment on."