Editorial: NY's chance to blunt big donors

Gov. Andrew Cuomo supported campaign finance reform in Gov. Andrew Cuomo supported campaign finance reform in his second State of the State speech in Albany (Jan. 4, 2012). Photo Credit: AP Photo/Mike Groll

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He who pays the piper calls the tune.

That's just as true in politics as in the world of music. Large campaign contributions buy influence; everybody knows that, especially those who make or receive such gifts.

And lax campaign finance regulations are a big reason Albany has been beholden to special interests for so long. New York has the highest limit in the country on how much an individual can give to a statewide candidate; the ceiling of $60,800 for such a race is more than 12 times the national median.

That means undue influence for well-heeled donors. A study by the nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group found that the biggest donors in 2011 include real estate interests, public employees' unions, the trial lawyers and the health-care industry. Just 127 big donors, the study found, gave more than a third of all money raised by state-level candidates and political parties.

These funds weren't given out of selfless devotion to the public weal. On the contrary, some big donors also spent a bundle on lobbying -- another way of buying influence. The outsized role of money in New York politics breeds cynicism by signaling voters that they count for little. And it has helped drive up taxes as politicians vie to curry favor with donors.

This page has advocated campaign financing reform for New York approximately since the glaciers retreated from Long Island. Reform has also been supported by such groups as NYPIRG, Citizens Union and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Now a group of prominent New Yorkers has formed a promising new coalition to push for change in this arena, and we wish them every success. It's called New York Leadership for Accountable Government, and it will spend more than $1 million to press Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the legislature to adopt a campaign finance system like the one Cuomo advocated in his State of the State address in January.

New York City already has such a system. There, candidates who agree to live by limits on spending can get $6 in public funds for every dollar donated by city residents. But only the first $175 of each person's giving is matched. The system thus encourages small donations by those who live in the place where the election is at stake. New York's supernaturally wealthy mayor notwithstanding, campaign finance reform has helped reinvigorate democracy there without unconstitutionally limiting free speech.

A larger torrent of money than ever before is already distorting the presidential campaign this year, thanks in part to the unfortunate consequences of a sound decision by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates for donations to "super PACs" that are supposedly independent of candidates. Clearly, reforms are needed at the federal level as well.

Closer to home, Cuomo has made real strides in putting the public's interest first in Albany, but there's no guarantee these gains will survive him without campaign finance reform. In his own campaign, Cuomo promised to push for public financing if elected. Such talk is always music to our ears. Better still would be action to make it a reality.

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