In 1986, when I was serving in the State Assembly, I helped draft the first Campaign Finance Reform statute to be introduced in the legislature. It was carried by the Elections Committee Chair at the time, one Sheldon Silver.
Two weeks ago, that same Assembly Member — now, of course, the Speaker — passed the Fair Elections Act of 2013 through the Assembly. But this crucial piece of legislation has no chance of becoming law unless the State Senate takes it up. Its fate now lies in the hands of our State Senator, Jeff Klein.
No one is better placed to clean up Albany’s cesspool of corruption than Senator Klein, who presides over the scandal-ridden State Senate with his “co-leader,” Republican Dean Skelos. It’s an unusual arrangement which has yet to prove its worth, in my opinion, though Mr. Klein would surely disagree. Regardless, he has a huge test before him now, as he must decide whether he will insist that Mr. Skelos allow a vote on a comprehensive campaign finance reform package.
At the moment, the prospects for doing something real about corruption in the State Senate do not look good. Senator Skelos has expressed iron-clad opposition to any changes in the rules of how we finance, disclose and enforce our elections. And it’s no surprise, really. The current system works well for him. Large contributions from special interests flow to the Senate Republicans, and legislation that advances the fortunes of the working or middle class dies a slow death.
Quid pro quos involving money in politics drive the Legislature’s culture of corruption, and Fair Elections reforms promise to transform the entire system. Its centerpiece is a small donor matching system that would match small contributions from ordinary people on a 6-1 basis. This proposal is based on the New York City Campaign Finance Law that, I believe, has worked well. This measure would not eliminate corruption, but it will make it possible for candidates for public office to run their campaigns without “dialing for dollars” to lobbyists and other deep-pocketed interests, and that can only be good for our state.
Combined with dramatically lower contribution limits, improved disclosure rules, and strengthened mechanisms for the enforcement of election laws, public financing will restore New York’s democratic integrity by making campaign finance more dependent on the people.
Luckily, the vast majority of New Yorkers are clear about their desire for comprehensive reform. A recent poll indicated that 74 percent of likely voters supported Fair Elections, with strong support coming from Democrats and Republicans alike. Many of our top elected officials already support Fair Elections, as well. Governor Andrew Cuomo is waiting to sign a bill that includes public financing, and Speaker Silver has already done his part.
The Senate is big money’s last bastion of power, and its up to Mr. Klein to demonstrate real leadership and get a bill to the floor. The votes are already there: both Senator Klein’s 4-member IDC and the other 28 mainline Democrats, led by Andrea Stewart-Cousins (Westchester), have indicated that they support a real break with business-as-usual in favor of public financing of elections.
But a vote isn’t happening because Mr. Skelos chooses rhetoric over action. That’s why Senate Republicans held a closed door “public” hearing last week that the actual public was not allowed to attend!
The people of this state deserve real action to finally correct New York’s democracy deficit. Senator Klein must insist that Dean Skelos allow a vote on Fair Elections. Otherwise the “co-leadership” arrangement will be revealed as just a façade for continued Republican dominance in that chamber.
The moment of truth has arrived. I call on Senator Klein to be a genuine Democrat and unite with his colleagues in the Senate and Assembly who agree with him on the need for this legislation. The legislature can and must send the Governor a long-overdue bill to end the power of big money in our political system.