New York's Gov. Cuomo Unveils His Own Bill to Battle Big-Money Politics—But Does It Matter?

| Wed Jun. 12, 2013 12:23 PM EDT
Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

With less than a week before New York State lawmakers go home for the summer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) unveiled his own bill on Tuesday to curb Albany's streak of political corruption scandals and battle the state's big-money politics. Cuomo's bill would make it easier to convict someone for bribing public officials and ban anyone convicted of public corruption from ever again working in government. It would expand the state's voter registration period, beef up the enforcement of election laws, and let 16- and 17-year-olds pre-register to vote.

But it is the third piece of Cuomo's bill that campaign reformer types care about most. That piece calls for a public financing system for all New York State elections in which small donations up to $175 would be matched $6 to $1 with public money. The intent here is clear: Nudge candidates running for state Assembly and Senate to collect more two- and three-figure donations as opposed to courting wealthy donors who can legally give five- and six-figure donations under New York's lax election laws. "Governor Cuomo's proposal builds upon a small-donor matching fund system that has proven effective in New York City," says Michael Malbin, the director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. "CFI's research shows the incentives work to get candidates to make low-dollar donors the financial backbones of their campaigns."

Foes of super-PACs and big-money politics see public financing as the best fix to today's money-soaked political system. And since a divided Congress won't take up public financing, public financing supporters believe the states give them the best shot at new reforms. Fair Elections for New York, a coalition of unions, good-government groups, and more, have invested heavily in passing a statewide public financing bill in New York, which they see as the marquee fight in the today's political money wars. "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere," was how Nick Nyhart, president of the reform group Public Campaign, put it last year.

By introducing his own bill, Cuomo is signaling to resistant Republican lawmakers that he wants public financing before the current session ends. The governor is also showing his liberal allies that he's still entrenched in this fight, at least publicly.

Yet the prospects for reform in New York are not good. The Democratic-controlled state Assembly has already passed a public financing bill like Cuomo's, but the state Senate is run by a motley coalition of Republicans and so-called independent Democrats, and Senate Republicans have no interest in public financing. Despite several analyses showing a modest price tag for public financing of statewide elections, state Sen. Dean Skelos, the Senate GOP's leader, said he'd rather invest the money in "education, infrastructure, job creation, child care—there are a lot of areas that we can use that money for."

Even Cuomo questioned whether major corruption or campaign reforms could pass before the legislature adjourns next week. Calling his bill "needed" and "overdue," he added: "I would not say that I see an especially easy glide path to passage for this bill."

The action around public financing isn't just in New York. On Wednesday morning, 10 leaders of liberal groups pressed top Democratic lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), to unite behind a national public financing bill for Congressional elections. Read their full letter here.

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