Senate public finance provision raises questions

Mar 16, 2014

The New York state Senate for the first time includes Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan for public campaign financing in its budget resolution.  The sparsely worded proposal has left supporters and opponents trying to sort through the political tea leaves.

The inclusion of public campaign financing would seem to signal an abrupt change of policy for Republicans, who co-lead the Senate. The GOP has long maintained that a matching small donor plan using public funds is a waste of the taxpayers’ money, and would only lead to more annoying robo-calls.

The provision, however, raised many more questions than answers.  It simply says that the Senate intends to modify Cuomo’s proposal to “adopt a system of public campaign finance.”

On the Senate floor, during a debate that took place around 1 a.m., Sen. Dan Squadron, a Democrat from Brooklyn, asked Senate Finance Committee Chairman John DeFrancisco, a Republican from Syracuse, to explain the proposal.

“What does this mean?” Squadron asked DeFrancisco.

“Well, you can interpret it many different ways,” said DeFrancisco, to laughter. “We’re rejecting the governor’s proposals, and we want to talk.”

The Senate Finance Committee chairman went on to explain that there was no clear consensus among the ruling coalition, which in addition to the GOP, includes five break-away Democrats.

Squadron thanked DeFrancisco for his honesty, but complained that the fuzziness of the budget resolution defeated its purpose.

“On this fundamental issue over democracy, unfortunately, as the sponsor said, we simply don’t have clarity,” Squadron said.

The Senate plan does not say how public campaign financing could be paid for. Cuomo also is not naming a specific dollar amount or funding source, because his plan would not affect races for state offices until 2016.

Opponents, who had long counted on the Senate to also oppose the measure, are uneasy. The Business Council’s Ken Pokalsky says a public matching donor system would skew the balance of power toward unions, something supporters deny. And Pokalsky says a public campaign finance system is no guarantee that New York’s long standing ethics issues will be cured.   

“You can’t convince us that a small donor match program addresses political corruption or bad acts,” Pokalsky said.

Government reform groups say they are pleased that the door has at least been cracked open. Now both houses of the legislature say they support, at least in concept, the governor’s plan. The Democratic-led State Assembly has long backed the matching donor program currently used in New York City.

Bill Mahoney, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says the proposal is very vague, though.

“It’s tough to say that it’s a definite step forward,” Mahoney said. “But since all we’ve seen from the Senate for decades are steps backward, it’s a sign it’s still alive for the coming weeks, as the budget is finalized.”

DeFrancisco, during debate, says public campaign financing will be discussed in the next part of the budget process, the joint legislative conference committees.