Second half of legislative session overshadowed by new scandals

Apr 15, 2013

The second half of New York’s legislative session begins today and it’s likely to be dominated by the response to on going bribery and corruption scandals that came to light while lawmakers were on spring break.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and one of the co-leaders of the state Senate have already taken some preemptive actions before the legislature is scheduled return to the Capitol following federal bribery charges against a state senator and an assemblyman, as well as other officials.  

Cuomo announced a plan to strengthen the power of the state’s district attorneys to prosecute corruption. He promises that there will be more proposals soon, with reforms stemming from the old adage “follow the money."

He says reasoning has lead to his support for public financing of political campaigns.

“Politicians need extraordinary amounts of money to run for office,” Cuomo said. “That leads to the need for high campaign contributions, and that leads to what we call the ‘pay to play’ culture.”

The leader of the senate’s Independent Democratic Conference, Sen. Jeff Klein, proposed an overhaul of the state’s public campaign finance system that includes public financing of campaigns. It would institute a 6-to-1 ratio of matching funds, similar to the program already in place in New York City.

One of the members of Klein’s group of breakaway democrats, Sen. Malcolm Smith, has been charged with bribery, for trying to buy his way onto the New York City Republican mayoral ticket. Smith, a former supporter of public campaign financing, was not quoted in the press release.

Government reform groups praised  Klein’s initiative. Karen Scharff with Citizen Action says it comes as a welcome development after a week of arrests and resignations.  And, she says, large donations from deep pocketed special interests to political candidates is, in its own way, just as bad as accepting a sack of cash. She calls it a form of legalized bribery.

“It’s making people distrust their government and feel disconnected,” Scharff said.   

Klein’s proposal goes further than New York City’s system or existing proposals by Assembly Democrats. Candidates who opt out of the public system would still face restrictions on the dollar amount for individual donations that they could accept. The plan would also create a statewide database of entities doing business with the state and keep better track of their donations to candidates.

The Independent Democratic Conference runs the Senate along with Senate Republicans, but the GOP is opposed to public financing of campaigns. A spokesman says allowing “politicians to use taxpayer money or other public funds they’re not entitled to” to run campaigns is not a good answer to the recent scandals.

Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif says there’s been “dozens of documented incidences of abuse” of New York City’s public campaign finance system. He calls it a recipe for disaster.
In addition to responding to bribery scandals, there are other issues on the table for the remainder of the legislative session. They include the decriminalization of public possession of small amounts of marijuana, a women’s equality act that includes codifying abortion rights in the Roe v. Wade decision, and the expansion of casino gambling.