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Long IslandPoliticsSpin Cycle

Invite-only Senate hearing and the realpolitik of public financing

Watch for worlds to collide Tuesday when the State Senate Elections Committee -- controlled by a Republican conference that opposes public campaign financing -- questions Amy Loprest, executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which has run such a system for 25 years.

The panel, chaired by Sen. Thomas F. O'Mara (R-Elmira), will hear testimony in Albany -- by invitation only -- to "examine the abuses within New York City's taxpayer funded political campaign system and the implications for state taxpayers if the system were to be expanded statewide."

Opponents of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's bid for a set of financing rules similar to the city's argue that offering public matching funds invites schemes to rip off taxpayers. On Friday, Senate GOP leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre cited the conviction of two campaign aides to City Comptroller John Liu in a case where prosecutors said "straw donors" were set up to maximize public matching funds. Such cases, Skelos said, "make it increasingly clear that we don't need taxpayer-funded political campaigns."

But just last week, Loprest testified at another legislative hearing: "We've all seen the reports from Albany of candidates using their campaign funds for cars, swimming pools or vacations to China. As a result of our audit and enforcement authority, most candidates in New York City don't take these liberties with their campaign funds. Those who flout these rules expose themselves to severe penalties, and may be personally liable to repay the misused funds."

The Campaign Finance Board long ago established a reputation for vigilance that could make the Internal Revenue Service look lighthearted. Nobody accuses state election officials of showing any zeal.

"The CFB takes its role very seriously in terms of protecting public money," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, which supports public financing. "There are a number of different public financing systems across the country and all have strong enforcement agencies."

Public-financing fans say the Senate GOP, struggling for a house majority, really wants to preserve such self-serving fundraising practices as the "LLC loophole" that the city closed a decade ago. This allows a corporate donor to bypass contribution limits by funneling funds through numerous limited-liability corporations.

Tuesday's posturing, starts at 11 a.m. and runs to 3 p.m. at the Capitol. 

Apparently NOT invited to testify at the hearing is George McDonald, the Republican mayoral candidate who has tried but failed in court to overturn a CFB requirement that limits contributions below the state maximum even for candidates who do not accept public financing. If the agenda is to whack public financing systems, you'd have thought McDonald would be a witness....

Just incidentally, Skelos supports generous longtime political donor -- and McDonald rival -- John Catsimatidis in the Republilcan mayoral primary.

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