William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.
Albany's newest corruption story just got richer.
Former Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson was arrested this week in an alleged $440,000 embezzlement scheme. His arrest follows that of former Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Malcolm Smith, who was taken away in bracelets last month for allegedly trying to bribe his way into the New York City Republican mayoral primary, where he would have had access to as much as $3 million in taxpayer-provided campaign dollars.
Both were prime sponsors of "reform" legislation to bring New York City's public campaign financing program to Albany.
On Tuesday, I sat in on a New York Senate hearing in Albany on the bill, which is being touted by its proponents as the "Clean Elections Act." A more truthful moniker for the legislation might be the "Union Jack Act," because, at the end of the day that's what the bill would allow the unions to do: jack New York taxpayers to the tune of billions, once the Republicans are run out of Albany, which they almost certainly will be if public financing passes.
The hearing, hosted by the Republicans, was available to the public via live webcast, but not everyone was allowed in. That caused a mild and understandable uproar, but I'm not sure it was by the "public."
The group of young men protesting outside the hearing chamber, shouting "let the public in!," held professionally-printed signs and engaged in too-well-rehearsed foot stomping to be mistaken for anything other than trained protesters. If you shut your eyes while listening to them, and imagined day-old cheese, it could have been in the Wisconsin state capitol during its 2011 union takeover. Same players; different state.
The Working Families Party, an amalgam of left wing and union interests, is among those leading the effort in New York to pass public campaign financing. I don't know if the protesters outside the hearing were from the WFP, but the young canvasser who rang my doorbell in Westchester last week identified himself as such. He "just stopped by" to ask my wife, a Democrat, to sign a petition in favor of the "Clean Elections" bill. They don't call it organized labor for nothing.
The WFP has been pushing this legislation for more than five years, and it's obvious why. The Clean Elections/Union Jack Act would cap contributions for those who traditionally support Republican candidates, but do nothing to check the value of the enormous ground machine the unions have created -- the type of operation that can ring doorbells around the state at a moment's notice. It would give union-supported candidates a huge advantage in contested elections going forward.
It was ironic, then, that in the four hours I stayed at the Albany hearing, the word "union" was never uttered once -- not a single time. That's how powerful the unions are in New York, even among state senate Republicans who are being systematically culled through their efforts.
The unions are joined by good government groups that understandably want to do something -- anything -- in the wake of the latest political scandals in the state. But shouldn't the zeal with which the WFP is trying to ram this bill through give those good government groups pause?
It doesn't seem to be. Even the million dollars that has suddenly materialized to drive the bill forward hasn't raised protests among the good governmenters.
The essential measure of any legislation needs to be "does it benefit the public?" And after 25 years and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on New York City elections, no one can point to how it does. There are still crooks in New York City politics; lobbyists still rule the roost, and voter participation is at a historic low. Nothing has changed; the taxpayers are just a little lighter in the wallet for it.
Public financing might make people feel better about themselves for doing something to address corruption, but is the illusion of progress really worth the $150 million or so it will cost state taxpayers to finance elections every cycle? Is it worth the one-party state government that may very well come from it?
There will be only one clear winner if public financing passes in New York State -- the organized protesters outside that hearing room door.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.