Wanted: A Cuomo War on Corruption

He vowed to clean up Albany. Now it's time to deliver.

January 21, 2015

Cross-posted on The New York Daily News

Wednesday, Gov. Cuomo will deliver the first State of the State address of his second term. In a striking coincidence, it also happens to be the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. FEC ruling, which opened the floodgates nationwide to massive outside election spending.

Campaign spending, fund-raising and the issues they raise — from corruption, to whether elected officials owe more to a few wealthy donors than to ordinary constituents — all relate to the biggest piece of unfinished business from Cuomo’s first term: the failure to pass reforms that would clean up a statehouse many see as a cesspool of corruption.

Changing the often unsavory way Albany does business was never going to be easy. But the issue isn’t going away — the parade of elected officials being investigated, indicted or convicted seems endless. Most recently, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has faced scrutiny over payments from a law firm that has obtained tax breaks for real estate interests it represents.

As the Cuomo-appointed Moreland Commission noted in a report before being shuttered, “New York needs comprehensive reform to restore the public trust and change the permissive culture of both illegal and legal corruption in state government.”

Corruption was a chronic problem in Albany years before Cuomo came into office. But thanks to Citizens United, there are new opportunities for wealthy donors to direct public policy from the shadows. Dark-money spending, by groups that conceal the identities of some or all of their donors, has ballooned.

A recent Brennan Center report found that in U.S. Senate elections, dark money has more than doubled since 2010. Super PAC spending, another direct result of the decision, also threatens to obscure the voices of average citizens in favor of a wealthy few. Of the $1 billion in super PAC spending since 2010, nearly $600 million — or 60% — came from 195 individuals and their families.

In New York’s state elections last year, outside spending hit nearly $20 million. That number is almost certain to grow in future cycles. Absent reform, elected officials will continue to follow the money — neglecting the interests of average New Yorkers unable to afford the ever-increasing cost of securing their representatives’ attention.

Congress is gridlocked, so change in Washington is unlikely anytime soon. But Albany can act.

At the end of last year’s legislative session, lawmakers came within one vote of passing comprehensive campaign finance reform, including statewide public financing that would elevate the voices of average New Yorkers. Now the state Senate is controlled by Republicans, who unanimously opposed reform last time around.

Cuomo’s most admirable trait has been his ability to push through needed change regardless of what the political establishment thought possible. He entered office on a promise to clean up Albany. Now, following a comfortable reelection and with a promising second term ahead, is not a time to retreat on that promise.

True campaign finance reform, including a public financing system that matches small donations, has a strong record of success over two decades in New York City.

It reduces corruption. It broadens voter and donor participation. Most importantly, it gives candidates the tools to run campaigns — and build public policy agendas — without having to cut back-room deals with kingmaking elites. Scaling the program up to the state level would cost each New Yorker less than a penny a day.

Real reform must also include better ethics enforcement, including more transparency about who gives money to which officials, and lower contribution limits.

If Cuomo makes these a second-term priority, he could leave office with the reform-minded legacy he seeks — and leave New Yorkers with a state government they can trust.

(Photo: AP)