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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.

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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)