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Editorial: An imperfect start to public campaign financing in New York State

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, gives a

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, gives a tour of the Hall of New York to members of the Legislature and media in Albany. Paintings in the hallway depict scenes from around New York. Cuomo delivered his third State of the State address later in the day. (Jan. 9, 2013) Credit: AP

Despite all the bouquets an ethically challenged legislature throws toward the idea of publicly financed political campaigns, Albany seems to be in no rush to implement a comprehensive system for state office that is the holy grail for government-reform advocates.

New York can't even get a true test case to the starting gate. The pilot program approved Monday for the upcoming state comptroller's race will be a rushed and flawed experiment. Still, it's worth trying -- because the only alternative is nothing.

The idea of using the comptroller's office as a trial run was first proposed by Thomas DiNapoli in 2007. Then the timing was aligned with the need. The State Legislature had just chosen DiNapoli, an assemblyman from Long Island, to replace Alan Hevesi, who pleaded guilty to a felony and resigned to avoid prison for misusing state employees on his payroll. Hevesi's top aides were later convicted of collecting $15 million in kickbacks from financial firms chosen as investment advisers by the comptroller, the sole trustee of New York's more than $173-billion pension fund.

But DiNapoli's bill languished as the state's budget crunch undercut the case to use taxpayer dollars to clean up dirty politics. This year, the drumbeat for public financing grew louder as more lawmakers were marched off in handcuffs. The Senate's GOP conference feared it was suicide for its members, and the Assembly -- where death and indictment are the ways many incumbents leave town -- really doesn't have much interest in funding upstart opponents.

So using the comptroller's race made sense, but unfortunately, what was passed did not have the checks of DiNapoli's earlier bill, such as an independent oversight board and limits on spending by political parties on behalf of the candidates. If this limited effort doesn't impress, then the legislature must make the necessary fixes and not abandon the effort to squeeze special-interest money out of the comptroller's race.