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Editorial: Albany's campaign finance reforms fall flat

Albany is now flooded with as many election

Albany is now flooded with as many election reform ideas as there are dollars trying to influence those who are elected. Credit: Tribune Media Services / Nancy Ohanian

Albany is now flooded with as many election reform ideas as there are dollars trying to influence those who are elected.

But it's not enough to change the pay-to-play culture that has corrupted our politics.

The legislature has long resisted any change, but the twin scandals recently involving Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Queens Democrat, and Bronx Assemb. Nelson Castro, who went undercover with a wire for three years as part of a deal with federal prosecutors for leniency in a perjury case, has embarrassed our representatives into trying to do something.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has long called for cleaning up Albany, sees an opportunity. But his two-prong approach -- toughening criminal laws and loosening the grip party bosses hold on access to the ballot -- doesn't go far enough. Cross endorsements should be eliminated; small political parties should exist and compete based on the vibrancy of their ideas, not to award patronage.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dusted off a laundry list of changes, including public campaign financing, but it conspicuously leaves a "soft money" loophole that keeps funds flowing from state parties to individual campaigns. Silver has one idea that is red meat for a populace fed up with corruption: Take away the pension of a crooked elected official. To do that, however, the state constitution would have to be amended.

The governor, speaker and Senate Democrats all want public campaign financing. Senate Republicans don't, but for all the wrong reasons. In any event, it's an idea whose time has not come. For one thing, there's the cost -- up to $200 million.

Reform advocates point to New York City's public financing law, one of the oldest in the nation, as evidence of an improved system. Really?

A likely motive for Malcolm Smith's desire to run a clearly losing campaign for New York City mayor was to get access to those free dollars. The campaign treasurer for city Comptroller John Liu is on trial in federal court, accused of taking illegal payments to skirt the law. And former Rep. Anthony Weiner, of Twitter fame, is considering a mayoral run because it's his last chance to spend a war chest bulked up with public matching funds.

And now some in Albany want a 6-to-1 match of taxpayer dollars, just like New York City's system provides. That doesn't sound like good odds for reform.