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Finishing the Job Teddy Roosevelt Started: Public Financing of Elections

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A little over a century ago, newly elected Governor Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Albany -- and was shocked to discover an "invisible empire" dominated by special interests who bought favors from elected officials "in the guise of contributions for campaign purposes." His experience led him to pioneer the issue of reform, especially campaign finance reform throughout his career.

When I launched my campaign for governor three years ago on the steps of the old Tammany Hall, we were facing a level of patronage and corruption in Albany that would make Boss Tweed blush. I said we needed serious reform to restore the people's trust and give New York a government as good as the people it serves.

We have made remarkable progress but one more big step still remains: public financing of elections.

In 2011, we enacted the "Clean up Albany Act," establishing a Joint Commission on Public Ethics with enforcement powers to investigate violations of law by members of both the executive and legislative branches, and oversee their financial disclosure requirements. For the first time, legislators have had to disclose income from outside employment, the names of clients and whether those clients had business before the state. While not perfect, it was a great improvement.

Last year after a slew of indictments against New York officials, my administration proposed another aggressive ethics reform package including reforms to strengthen District Attorney's Authority and the Board of Elections. When the legislature refused to pass these reforms, I empaneled a Moreland Commission to fill the void left by their legislative inaction. From the beginning I said the Commission would be temporary because New York needed new reform laws, not a new bureaucracy.

Despite vehement opposition from the legislature, including legal challenges that threatened to permanently undermine the Governor and Attorney General's authority, the Commission achieved real results. The legislature passed the essence of our legislation just six months after staunchly refusing to act and New York now has real bribery laws, disclosure, and enforcement at the Board of Elections. This outcome was praised by DAASNY on behalf of all 62 District Attorneys and by the Commission leaders.

Upon passage of the legislation, the Commission ended and its open cases were sent to appropriate prosecutors in what one outlet called "a blaze of referrals." As a result the Commission's investigative work is now going to prosecutors who can actually pursue these cases with unchallenged subpoena power and better resources. Prosecutors, including the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, are already following Moreland leads and I have directed the Executive to be fully cooperative. I hope the legislature does the same, contrary to their past opposition. This is now the best chance the Moreland investigations have of moving forward.

But despite this remarkable progress, public finance is the last meaningful reform left undone. I have long fought for campaign public finance and this year used the Governor's maximum leverage to make it a reality: including it in the budget process.

Unfortunately after negotiating for months on end, we were not able to beat the April 1 budget clock. But we came closer to achieving our goal than ever before: We got the Republican/Independent coalition-controlled state Senate to agree to a test case for public financing in the upcoming race for state comptroller.

Some said the deal was not enough. I agree -- it wasn't. But critics also missed the significance of what we did achieve. By agreeing to the pilot program in the comptroller's race, opponents conceded the crucial ideological point they had resisted for decades: that public funds can be used to finance elections.

We crossed the ideological Rubicon and the world did not stop spinning -- now it's time to finish what we started and pass a full-fledged program of public financing for state campaigns. If you can use public funds for a demonstration program then you can use public funds for a full program.

This cannot wait another year. Supreme Court rulings from Citizens United to the recent McCutcheon case have made a mockery of campaign finance reform and opened the floodgates. Super PACs -- which barely existed five years ago -- spent $609 million nationwide in 2012 alone. Two in three Americans say they trust government less because big Super PAC donors have so much more influence than they do. One in four say they are less likely to vote as a result.

We may not be able to shut off the spigot of money into the system, but by providing public financing we can increase public participation and ensure that deserving candidates, not only rich and well-connected ones, have an opportunity to run and compete for elected office.

I know it's an election year and legislators are eager to get out of town. They believe they have done much good work and they have much to be proud of. They are correct. But this can be another "New York moment" as we would be the largest state to pass public financing.

The decision is in the hands of the Senate Majority Coalition. The promise of the Coalition was that they could achieve progressive measures -- public finance is the best opportunity for the remainder of this session. Unfortunately, unless there is a real change in momentum, passage of the Dream Act and women's equality will be very difficult this session. Those issues will need to be resolved in the next election cycle and I plan on bringing my case to the people. Hopefully I will not need to campaign on public finance because it will be a reality. But to end the session without the Senate Majority Coalition agreeing to public finance would be a true failure and a lost opportunity.

The next two months provide plenty of time to finish the job Teddy Roosevelt started. And I will keep fighting until the bell rings in June.