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ALBANY -- Two days of internal conflict that tested the Senate's bipartisan governing coalition like never before has resulted in a perplexing proposal that mentions public financing of campaigns, but may not actually support it.
The Senate resolution promised only to "modify" Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposal to create a system of using state funds to match small campaign contributions to limit the influence of big donors.
"What does that mean?" asked Sen. Daniel Squadron (D-Manhattan) in a post-midnight floor debate early Friday.
"Well, you can interpret that many, many different ways," said Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse), eliciting some laughs from senators. "Basically what it means in lay language is that we are rejecting the governor's proposal and we want to talk. We're leaving options open."
Squadron pressed, asking if the Republicans had some new proposal for public financing of campaigns.
"That doesn't mean that at all," DeFrancisco said. "It means things are open and reasonable minds can come up with many, many different types of proposals that would accomplish the fairness and the openness and the enforcement that is the goal of the governor."
Squadron said he had never seen a budget resolution that simply said, "Let's talk."
"I think it's actually no laughing matter," said Squadron, calling New York's campaign finance system "deeply broken."
"This [budget] process is supposed to be about bringing a little bit of sunlight, about a little public knowledge and straight forwardness," Squadron said. "We simply don't have clarity. That is a fundamental problem."
The thorny political issue contributed to a delay in the budget process by two days.
The issue is a major test for Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), who leads the five-member Independent Democratic Conference. The breakaway Democrats provide Republicans with a share of the majority in coalition that includes a conservative Democrat.
Klein and his conference have made public financing of campaigns a top priority this election year.
Squadron and other Democrats in the traditional Democratic conference have long pushed the issue, but weren't part of the budget resolution drafted by the majority coalition.
The inclusion of the vague reference won support from good-government groups -- "Thanks to Senate co-leader Klein and the IDC" -- as well as a caution.
"The consequence of this language is unclear, but it acknowledges the need to no longer ignore but address New York's broken electoral system. The door has finally been cracked open by all parties," said Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Citizens Union and the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Negotiations between Cuomo and legislative leaders will soon begin for the state budget due April 1.