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Groups Press Cuomo on Campaign Finance Reform

Governor Cuomo promised in his State of the State message that he would try to reform the state’s campaign finance system. The governor is expected to release a bill later this month. A new coalition has formed to hold him to his word.


Governor Cuomo, in his State of the State message, said he wants to reform a campaign finance system that he says has led to New York ranking 48th in the nation for voter turnout. The state also has the lowest percentage of contributions from ordinary residents than any other state in the nation.   


Cuomo would like to create a state model similar to New York City’s public campaign finance system, which offers matching contributions for small donations.  His proposal, which has not yet been released in a bill form, would also lower the limit for individual contributions. The current limit of around $100,000 for all campaigns per year makes it easier for large donors to influence policy, reform advocates say.


Cuomo says he’ll meet with legislative leaders after the spring holiday break about priority matters for the remainder of the legislative session, and he’ll be pushing  for campaign finance reform.


“We’ll talk about the rest of the session,” Cuomo said.


 Sue Lerner, with Common Cause, says currently most contributions for campaigns for statewide offices, as well as the Senate and Assembly, come from a limited number of zip codes, many from the area right around the Capitol, where major lobbying and other interest groups have their offices, as well as the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan, and Wall Street, and “not from the actual voters”.   


An analysis by Common Cause found that  two Buffalo area Senators, Republican Mark Grisanti and Democrat Tim Kennedy raised 75% to 90% of their campaign money from large donors who live outside of their districts.  They say they are currently processing data for other 2010 state Senate races and will release it in the coming days.


Common Cause is part of a number of government reform groups, including Citizens Union and NYU’s Brennan Center, that have formed a new coalition, known as Fair Elections for New York, which plans events this spring to promote campaign finance reform.



The advocates favor a matching system where, for every dollar contributed to a campaign, the public pool of money gives the candidate $6, up to a limited amount.   Lerner says that would give small donors a bigger voice, and encourage candidates who are not rich to run for office.


“You open up the ballot to a much broader selection of candidates,” said Lerner. “And the percentage of voters who actually contribute money goes up, because they know that their dollar is worth six (dollars)”.


The cost to taxpayers is estimated to be around $140 million dollars.  


Cuomo, while an advocate of campaign finance reform, has proven to be adept at raising prodigious amount of money himself. He currently has over $14 million dollars     in his campaign fund, according to the most recent reports released in mid January.  


Lerner, with Common Cause, is not troubled by that. She says sometimes, politicians who raise the most money, and are winners, know best about the pitfalls of the current big money driven system.


“People who are successful under the current system and who see how bad it can be, and want to change it, those are the voices we need leading the charge,” she said.  



Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.