Public campaign finance showing signs of life

May 12, 2014

Gov. Cuomo is facing pressure to revive an issue that failed in state budget negotiations -- enacting a public campaign financing system for statewide elections.

In the final budget deal, Cuomo agreed with legislative leaders to a pared-down public campaign finance system that would apply only to the state comptroller’s race, and sunset after this year.

The governor was immediately condemned by government reform groups who said the pilot program was cynically designed to fail. But Cuomo defended the deal, saying advocates were looking at the glass half empty.

“You can celebrate that this is the greatest advancement that has been made,” Cuomo said in a budget signing ceremony.  “Or you can say you’re disappointed that we haven’t had a total victory.”

But the criticism from the progressive members of Cuomo’s own Democratic Party has not let up, and there are threats that the liberal Working Families Party will field its own candidate when it meets at the end of the month if Cuomo does not convince the legislature to expand campaign finance reform to other state races.

The governor has kept his public comments on this topic to a minimum since the budget was passed, but he wrote an article for the Huffington Post, comparing himself to former President Theodore Roosevelt. Cuomo wrote that public campaign financing is the last big reform measure he hopes to achieve in his first term as governor. And he blames the state Senate, which is ruled by a coalition of Republicans and break-away Democrats for the failure so far.

The head of the Independent Democratic Conference and co-leader of the senate, Jeff Klein, has said all along that he supports the measure. And Klein says he’s hoping to convince his Republican counterpart to agree over the next few weeks.

“We have to do more than we did in the budget,” Klein said.

But the leader of the Senate GOP, Dean Skelos, has been against public campaign financing on principle. He’s said it’s a waste of the taxpayer’s money, and will only go to fund more annoying robocalls.

Sen. Skelos may have trouble maintaining that stance, though. While the Democratic incumbent for state comptroller, Tom DiNapoli, has rejected the pilot public finance program as flawed and unworkable, the newly announced Republican candidate for comptroller, says he’s going to take advantage of the public matching small donor system. Onondaga County Comptroller Robert Antonacci made the announcement in Syracuse.  

“We didn’t anticipate self-funding a campaign,” Antonacci said. “I am very proud that I will participate in the taxpayer funded program.”

Antonacci says the program makes him immediately viable as a candidate.

Charlie Albanetti, with Citizen Action, which is also an affiliate of the Working Families Party, says the developments are all a good sign.

“We’re definitely encouraged,” said Albanetti, who says a few weeks ago the government reform groups were told that public campaign financing was dead for the session.

“We’re glad to see that it’s become part of the conversation again,” Albanetti said.

There have been some reports that the Senate might be open to a two-tiered system, with a larger matching funds ratio for downstate campaigns in the more expensive TV markets, and less money for upstate candidates. Albanetti says that’s been tried unsuccessfully in other states.

“It’s really important that all races are funded equally,” he said.

The Working Families Party meets May 31.  Cuomo has about three weeks to achieve his goal of convincing the Senate to vote for a wider public campaign finance plan.