Albany's unfinished business, Part I


The State Assembly and Senate end their legislative sessions on June 19, and while there have been significant accomplishments, there are also important matters that were either left unaddressed or, perhaps worse, only seem to have been dealt with.

Two examples of the latter — problems that Gov. Andrew Cuomo or the Legislature want us to believe are resolved, but aren’t — are campaign finance reform and public corruption.

The way running for office now works, candidates fund their campaigns through a combination of small contributions from supporters, ask for large donations from the wealthy or accept even larger donations from those who seek a quid pro quo relationship — i.e., they look to buy influence in the state Capitol.

Reformers have long proposed a system whereby public money would be used to match what candidates raise directly from small donors. This would enable candidates who depend mostly on small contributions to mount somewhat more competitive, credible campaigns, and reduce, a bit, the influence big money has on the laws that get proposed.

But those who get to decide on any changes in how politicians fund campaigns are, of course, politicians. Legislators who depend on influence-peddling campaign contributions from unions, corporations or major law firms would be going against their own self-interests if they changed the system.

So instead, all Cuomo could accomplish was a trial-size effort enacted through the budget process: only one race, the state comptroller’s election, will receive public financing. This pilot program is touted as a test, which, if successful — whatever that means — can be expanded.

The League of Women Voters of New York State said it best: “Unless real reform is seriously addressed in the coming weeks, this deeply flawed and inadequate faux ‘reform’ leaves New Yorkers with a government still susceptible to the corrupting influence of big-moneyed special interests.”

The other big disappointment was the governor’s termination of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, which had brought hope to those who want good, clean government in Albany. State politicians and pundits are promoting the idea that the commission was formed to coerce the Legislature to enact stronger public ethics laws. Cuomo said that once they did so, in this session, there was no more need for the commission.

That’s fundamentally wrong in two ways. It’s wrong because the laws that were passed do nothing to investigate current corruption, and take only a checked-swing swipe at future criminal and unethical behaviors on the part of our public servants. It’s also wrong because, while Cuomo may say his commission was a tactic to force better laws — one that succeeded — the creation of the commission was actually his defensive response to loud public outcry over the dozens of legislators and other public servants who have been hauled off to jail and demands for anti-corruption action. Cuomo may have gotten new laws, but we don’t think the public got clean government.

We’re glad U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara quickly stepped in to seize the commission’s files and forbid the Assembly and Senate from destroying any records related to the commission’s investigations. We hope that Bharara’s office can do what the commission members were prevented from doing and the governor and legislators didn’t do.

We’ll have more on Albany’s unfinished business next week.