While the preliminary report from the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption justifies deep suspicions about misdeeds in Albany, the greater concern is that the probe will do nothing to truly change the capital's culture of self-interest and self-dealing.
The controversial commission, birthed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo after lawmakers refused last spring to pass his package of reforms, is now his guided missile -- poised in midair. Moreland is continuing its investigation, highlighted by a showdown over subpoenas to legislative leaders seeking the identity of clients who are the sources of their outside income. But Cuomo is offering to dissolve the commission and those pesky subpoenas if he gets a comprehensive reform bill. The risk is that an ethics standoff brings a return to the Albany paralysis of yesteryear, delaying the budget and other legislation.
The report is stinging about Albany's "pay-to-play culture." In detailing the game to get a law passed, a lobbyist discussed the "costly political contributions" needed "to certain elected officials, including the chairs of committees that would have jurisdiction over the bill."
The report also found that the state Board of Elections fails to police the use of campaign funds which it appears were spent on personal items such as luxury cars, cigars and clothing. Such donations can turn into "legal bribery," the commission said.
To stop these practices and stop outright corruption, the commission offers a bucket of recommendations, including mandated disclosure of clients with business before the state, lower campaign contribution limits, beefed up bribery statutes, tougher sentences for those who violate the public trust and overdue restrictions on grand jury immunity. These are solid changes, but even more are needed.
Unfortunately, it's the commission's recommendation of public financing of political campaigns that is driving the debate to a stalemate. Using taxpayer dollars has long been anathema to Republicans, and right now there aren't enough votes in the State Senate to enact public financing. While many good-government groups support public financing, which took root after Watergate as the essential reform to limit the influence of big money, it's no longer the silver bullet that will end Baghdad on the Hudson.
The 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, which allows unlimited campaign spending by independent groups, already undermines the effectiveness of such financing. That was made very clear in this year's New York City mayoral race, where one of the nation's oldest public-financing systems is already in place. Yet in that race, unions and wealthy individuals spent tens of millions of dollars.
Public financing can't eliminate all special interests. More important, it doesn't come close to eliminating the money that greases the mechanics of governing. That's why New York needs tougher ethics rules, sharper prosecutorial tools and what's missing from the proposals right now -- significant ballot access reform to encourage more candidates and more competitive elections.
Dissolving the commission in return for another toothless ethics bill would be the worst possible outcome. The initial report indicates there is evidence of criminal and unethical behavior. Unless remarkable legislation is passed to tilt the system in favor of the public, the commission should probe away.