Cuomo Finally Gets in the Campaign Finance Reform Game

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spent his career cultivating the image of a man who gets what he wants. In 2011, he rammed same-sex marriage legislation through the legislature, even with a Republican-controlled Senate. In 2012, when he wanted New York to be the first state to pass gun-control laws after the Newtown shooting, he was similarly productive. This year, Cuomo has said he wants to make state elections fairer, by lowering contribution limits and supplementing small donations with public dollars to give them more weight. The governor was unabashedly critical of the state legislature’s history of corruption and pointed to campaign finance reform as a key solution. But as it looks increasingly unlikely such a measure will pass before the Assembly adjourns on June 20, it’s Cuomo who stands to face the blame. 

After weeks of mounting pressure from activists and donors, Cuomo finally unveiled his plan for campaign reform on Tuesday, but he was already backpedaling. According to The New York Times, Cuomo “acknowledged that the measure was a long shot in the waning days of the legislative session.” “I would not say that I see an especially easy glide path to passage for this bill,” the governor told reporters.

But in many ways, the bill is only a long shot because of Cuomo’s actions—or lack thereof. A majority in both the state assembly and the senate support the concept and polls have shown public financing to be consistently popular with voters. The governor has been talking about the need for election reform for years. Yet Cuomo waited weeks to get involved in the legislative negotiations on the measure. Those negotiations are fraught—in part, because of Cuomo’s decisions. During the 2012 elections, the governor only backed one Democrat and one Republican, refusing to endorse Cecelia Tkaczyk, a Democrat who made campaign finance reform a central part of her campaign. Cuomo didn’t even object when her opponent sent out mailers portraying himself with the governor. The very close race didn’t get called for Tkaczyk until January. Cuomo later chose not to interfere when a group of dissatisfied Democrats, calling themselves the Independent Democratic Conference, saw a chance to grab power by united with Republicans.  The two groups now share control of the Senate and only bring up measures that both groups agree to. Since the Republicans do not support any public dollars going to campaigns, there’s been almost no movement in the senate. On Monday, Republican leader Dean Skelos told reporters that even in closed-door meetings with the governor, the topic “hasn’t been discussed in a while.”

Cuomo, who’s made no secret of his national ambitions, normally benefits from the Republican control—they can stop controversial bills from the Democratic-controlled assembly before they reach the governor’s desk. But in this case, he’s left in a strange position. If New York passed public financing legislation, it would be by far the most significant victory for the reform community in years, and he would take the credit. However, offering an aggressive measure while being demure in negotiations isn’t likely to cut it. Plenty of donors and advocates have taken note of Cuomo’s inaction, urging him to get more involved.

Given that he’s already framing it as a long-shot, Cuomo’s new proposal doesn’t seem likely to cut through the gridlock. His proposal joins two others—one from the IDC, the other from assembly Democrats—and in some ways finds middle ground between the two. All three measures would give six public dollars for every dollar of small donations, a system based on New York City’s public match system. But Cuomo also offered some middle ground on several key points. For instance, the IDC proposal banned corporate contributions, closing a loophole for limited liability corporations (LLCs) and eliminated party “housekeeping” accounts, which are used to pay for campaign expenses and currently can accept unlimited contributions. The assembly bill was silent on both issues. Cuomo proposed lower corporate contribution limits and contributions limits to housekeeping accounts.  As Demos’ Mijin Cha writes, Cuomo’s proposal “also includes the most aggressive disclosure law that would require any contributions to a PAC, lobbying 501 (c)(3), other 501 (c) organization, political committee, or political party over $500 will be disclosed within 48 hours and within 24 hours near Election Day. Current law requires disclosure every six months to a year, if disclosure is required, at all.”

It’s a bold measure. If only the man proposing it were so bold.

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