The first step toward real reform
It would be nice if the Legislature and governor could accomplish something this spring more notable than identifying the official state snack or letting sick people smoke pot.
Albany's best chance at a substantive, long-term legislative accomplishment is likely to come in the budding inception of public campaign financing.
There are plenty who disagree on whether taxpayers should be funding political campaigns and whether the money — the Campaign Finance Institute estimates about $25 million to $40 million a year — would actually do much to curb the influence of money in politics. The truth is, it won't. Not by itself.
Lawmakers will need to complement public financing with restrictions on individual donations, increased transparency so the public knows whose money is influencing the politicians, and the closing of loopholes that allow candidates to accept and spend donations indiscriminately. But none of those changes are likely to happen this year.
But the way they're talking in Albany these days, some form of compromise on public campaign financing could be reached before legislators go home for the summer on June 19. Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he favors it, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has long pushed for it. The holdup is in the Senate.
Public campaign financing would get the ball rolling toward other reforms.
The money, which would likely come in some kind of matching dollar ratio (a few dollars of state money for every private campaign dollar raised up to a certain amount) would break the ice for some candidates who otherwise wouldn't be able to raise enough money to mount a credible challenge. Even with matching funds, most of these challengers won't be able to overcome the advantage of incumbency. But public financing will give them something they haven't had before: a solid platform from which to be heard. And as more challengers are heard, the voices for change will grow more forceful. And that's worth the investment of taxpayer money.
Public campaign financing itself won't end politics as usual. But it will open the door. The governor and the Legislature must step through it.