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Gov. Cuomo's Moment of Truth

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The next couple of weeks are going to tell us a lot about the character and political savvy -- and perhaps the political future -- of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

As The New York Times editorialized last week, Cuomo and Empire State lawmakers are "tantalizingly close" to agreeing on a legislative package that would strike a powerful blow against the corrupting power of big money in politics and set an example for other governors, state legislatures and the federal establishment.

The legislation includes tighter contribution limits and beefed-up enforcement of New York's campaign finance laws. But its centerpiece is a "fair elections" program that would boost the clout of small-dollar campaign donors by supplementing their modest contributions with public matching funds.

Similar systems already are in place in Arizona, Connecticut and Maine, and in New York City. They're not perfect, but wherever they've been given a fair shot, fair elections programs have helped non-traditional candidates -- women, minorities, young people, blue-collar workers and small business entrepreneurs -- break into politics and compete on more or less even ground with big money-backed candidates. Just as important, they've helped smart, experienced politicians break their dependence on big money donors and put more of their attention where it belongs -- on issues that impact the average constituent.

In Connecticut, my home state, I've seen and studied public financing up close. A Demos study I co-authored last year documented how it has diversified the pool of candidates and reduced the clout of big donors and their lobbyists. Our research also found that Connecticut's public financing program has encouraged elected officials to spend more time with constituents, increased the number of campaign donors, and helped produce public policies more closely aligned with public preferences.

The New York proposal would cost each taxpayer about one penny per day, a ridiculously low price for an effective hedge against corruption, as this little animation illustrates. The money would be distributed to state legislative candidates, with $6 in public funds provided for every $1 raised in contributions of $175 or less. Thus, a $25 gift would grow to $175 and $100 would become $700.

Critics dismiss fair elections as a tax giveaway, often calling it "welfare for politicians." In fact, every dollar the programs distribute to candidates is hard-earned; to get it, the candidates must invest time and energy to connect with folks who don't typically have much money -- if any at all -- to spend on politics.

Gov. Cuomo has long talked a good game on fair elections. Opening the 2012 legislative session, he declared that "It's time we make sure that all New Yorkers have an equal voice in our political process ... We must achieve fundamental campaign reform by implementing a system of public funding of elections."

But as the 2013 legislature entered its final negotiations, the governor let fair elections die, disappointing New Yorkers weary of Albany's pay-to-play political culture. This year, however, he put the legislation in his executive budget proposal; with legislative leaders now in the final stages of their budget bargaining, we are counting on him to stand firm behind it.

The plan's passage would let the governor legitimately claim credit for something other prospective national candidates have been unable to deliver: a workable, substantial plan to open up our politics and break the dominance of big money.

America is watching, Governor.