State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has turned out to be a guinea pig in a not-so-grand political experiment that could only be conceived in the backrooms of Albany.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who already has amassed $33 million for his re-election campaign this fall, and legislative leaders picked the comptroller's race in budget deliberations as a "trial run" to see if public campaign financing can work.
Cuomo early in the year touted public financing as a way to reform Albany's "pay to play" culture. But good-government groups criticized him for giving up the chance for far-reaching campaign finance legislation and dumping the Moreland Commission, which was supposed to root out state corruption.
Cuomo told union leaders that the Republican Senate blocked campaign finance efforts. Now, the lone fig leaf is the comptroller's race.
"This thing is designed to fail and they know it," said Blair Horner, legislative director of the nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group. "It's more a cynical ploy of about having the appearance of doing something . . . with perhaps the collateral damage of torturing DiNapoli, a supporter of public financing, with something that cannot work."
Ties between Cuomo and DiNapoli, a Democrat who formerly represented the 16th Assembly District in Nassau County, often have been strained.
"We're mulling it, but there are a lot of unanswered questions," said DiNapoli, who put no timetable on a final decision to participate. "And now it's been left in the hands of the [state] Board of Elections, which the Moreland Commission described as dysfunctional."
For DiNapoli, who in January had already raised $2.1 million for re-election, the impact of the legislation would be significant. NYPIRG has estimated that he would have to give up 73 percent of his donations, although some of that would be offset by public financing.
With the first state party conventions about a month away, public funding advocates say there is no way the elections board can draft rules, hold a public comment period, set up enforcement procedures, create computer programs and hire adequate staff in time.
Charles Albanetti, of the nonprofit Citizen Action of New York, said a half-dozen groups backing public campaign financing have urged DiNapoli not to take part. They fear that a failure would be blamed on public financing, not on inadequate preparations.
"No one ever said we should start the system in 2014," Albanetti said. "And there's no need for a pilot, since New York City has a robust campaign finance system that has proved a success for years."
John Conklin, state elections board spokesman, said officials are still reviewing the bill, but "We're going to have in place what the bill requires us to do."
David Laska, spokesman for the state GOP, said DiNapoli will be hurt if he balks at taking part in the test after advocating for public financing for so long.
"It's pretty telling to see how quickly he flips once he sees how much he has to return to donors -- his eyes must have been jumping out of his head," Conklin said.
Laska acknowledged that no Republican candidates for comptroller have come forward, but said party officials are talking to potential contenders. Laska called New York City's public finance system highly political, saying the Campaign Finance Board's decisions regarding funding for Democratic mayoral contenders John Liu and Bill Thompson helped Bill de Blasio win the primary and avoid a runoff.
"Public financing advocates promise heaven but they deliver hell," Laska said.
Horner called such criticism "unfair" because the state initiative is "doomed to fail" from the start. "This looks to me like a political equivalent of a slow-motion car crash," he said.