Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly promised to “clean up Albany,” a vow that topped his priority list when he ran for office in 2010. Last January, he took the next step and proposed public matching funds for smaller campaign donations, a system that has worked remarkably well in New York City.
Mr. Cuomo could soon be presented with an excellent opportunity to reaffirm that pledge and begin a serious push in the State Legislature to get public financing of political campaigns on the books. On Dec. 1, a special commission he appointed to investigate the scandalous shortcomings in New York’s political culture — the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption — is expected to release its first set of proposals. Its No. 1 proposal should be public financing.
Albany lawmakers have long resisted allowing the use of public matching funds for small donations. Among their complaints is that this would be a waste of taxpayer money. What they mean is that they greatly prefer big chunks of tainted money from powerful special interests to public funds augmenting smaller donations from ordinary citizens.
Left unsaid is that most deep-pocketed donors cost the taxpayer dearly. They do so by demanding special treatment — enacting this law, undoing that one — in ways that benefit them, not all of us. More to the point, Albany’s lawmakers fear that public financing of campaigns will encourage real challengers to run against them. The commission’s job is to encourage just such challenges.
The Onondaga County district attorney, William Fitzpatrick, one of the commission’s three leaders, told a radio show host in Syracuse that he has been persuaded that a system of matching public funds to small private donations, similar to New York City’s, would reduce the corrupt campaign funding in Albany that has led to so many recent indictments. A Republican who describes himself as a “fiscal conservative,” Mr. Fitzpatrick is in a good position to remind his fellow Republicans that honest government can save money.
As commission members put the finishing touches on their first report, they should resist efforts to dilute a public financing proposal, delay it or even drop it from their list. And when they do recommend public financing of state campaigns — we have high hopes that they will — the governor should join the fight. He cannot give up and say the Legislature won’t go along. He must instead deploy his wiles and his clout to get legislators to enact a reform he once labeled “essential” to cleaning up New York’s government.