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The decades-old effort to reduce the influence of big money donors in New York politics through public financing of campaigns took a new, if familiar, step Tuesday.
A proposal co-sponsored by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver includes voluntary public financing of campaigns to preserve "the heart of our democracy." It would be funded by money from Wall Street fraud settlements.
The Senate's Republican majority quickly made its opposition to public financing clear. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is closely allied with the Senate Republicans, said he is still considering the concept, which had been a major element of his 2010 campaign.
New Yorkers have heard similar talk before over the past 26 years, including during the 2010 elections.
In all, $246 million in campaign donations were collected for 215 statewide and legislative races in that election year, dominated by contributions from a few individuals and business interests. Eighteen people donated $150,000 each, the limit for a calendar year that's far higher than in most states, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group. The vast majority of New Yorkers don't contribute.
Candidates routinely promise in election years to make campaigns less about money and more about ideas and the candidates themselves. Once in Albany, the Senate and Assembly often back competing proposals, then fail to compromise enough to pass a law.
"Public financing in New York City has worked, it's a good idea, and it's never going to pass in Albany," said Bill Samuels, founder of the New Roosevelt good-government think tank.
He compared the effort to another major reform that failed this year. Nearly every senator and Assembly member pledged to create an independent panel to redraw election district lines, changing a process that has notoriously been twisted by the legislative majorities to protect their power. Cuomo had promised to veto redistricting plans not done independently, but eventually signed the proposals drawn by the Senate Republican and Assembly's Democratic majorities.
"We are going down the same route that lets the governor say, `I'm for public financing, I'm for independent redistricting,' when in fact he put no real muscle behind the first one and won't put real muscle behind this one," Samuels said.
Cuomo said he has been unable to persuade the Legislature to adopt a plan so far.
"I haven't seen his bill," Cuomo said Tuesday of the Assembly proposal. "I support campaign finance. I've been pushing it very hard throughout the session and we have a few weeks left and I'm hoping we get something done."
In 2010, Cuomo said current laws "fail to prevent the dominance of wealthy contributors and special interests."
On Tuesday, Democratic Senate leader John Sampson of Brooklyn introduced Silver's bill in the Senate, potentially forcing the Republican majority to address the measure. Republicans have a 32-30 majority going into this election season.
"We have seen the terrible effects and influence that money has had on all levels of our government," Sampson said.
Senate Republican majority spokesman Scott Reif shot down public financing.
"In these challenging economic times, we don't believe that shifting $150 million or more in taxpayer dollars away from schools, road and bridge repairs, or initiatives that help businesses create jobs, would be a wise use of the state's limited resources," he said.
The good-government group Common Cause said 15 states provide partial public financing of campaigns directly to candidates, including New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont. Another 10 states provides some public financing to candidates and political parties. Most of the funds are from tax check-offs, others through taxes.
The Assembly's proposal would provide $6 for every $1 in contributions a participating politician collects. There would also be limits and new enforcement rules and Wall Street fraud settlements would fund the campaigns.