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Calls continue for publicly-financed campaigns

Advocacy groups are encouraged by recent statements by the co- chair of Governor Cuomo’s anti corruption commission, who says he now favors public financing of political campaigns.

William Fitzpatrick, the Syracuse area Onondaga County DA, who is the co-chair of Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission, says he has become a convert to using public funds to finance political campaigns.

Fitzpatrick made the comments in an interview with his hometown public radio station WRVO Public Media. He says the benefits would outweigh having to ask taxpayers to foot the bill.

“The savings ultimately would be astronomical,” said Fitzpatrick. “When you eliminate that pay to play mentality.”

Fitzpatrick says he doesn’t know if the Moreland Commission will recommend a public campaign finance system when it issues a preliminary report in December. He says there are 24 commissioners on the panel who hold “diverse opinions”.   

Karen Scharff, with Citizen Action, which is part of a coalition advocating for a statewide public campaign finance system, says DA Fitzpatrick’s support is good news.

“I hope that under his leadership and the leadership of the other co chairs, the commission as a whole will come to the same conclusion, “Scharff said.

“Because honestly, the Moreland Commission will be a failure unless they really do recommend systemic reform.”

Governor Cuomo has also pushed for public campaign finance reform for statewide campaigns, modeled on the New York City system. It allocates public money to candidates who collect small contributions from donors, based on a six to one matching system. But Cuomo’s bill was rejected by Republicans in the legislature.

GOP Assemblyman Bill Nojay says it would be a waste of the taxpayers’ money. And he says the public would not stand for current standards that he says allow some candidates to abuse their campaign funds.  

“I don’t think taxpayers in New York State would tolerate for a heartbeat their hard earned tax dollars being spent on leases on luxury automobiles, conferences in warm climates,” Nojay said.

“That’s not how taxpayer dollars should be used.”  

In the Assembly, Republicans are in the minority with two thirds of the seats currently held by Democrats. But in the State Senate, Republicans control the chamber, along with several independent Democrats, and they successfully blocked the public campaign finance bill in the past legislative session. .  

DA Fitzpatrick says he too, was disturbed by the lax rules governing how funds campaign can be spent. He says candidates often submit very vague reasons for their use of, in some cases, huge sums from their campaign war chests.

“We’re not talking about $50 for dinner or $100 for around of golf,” Fitzpatrick said.

“We’re talking about thousands, and in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars, in unspecified reimbursements.”  

Assemblyman Nojay says the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision  prohibits limits on campaign spending by outside groups, so  he believes  there’s no way to totally eliminate the influence of money in politics. DA Fitzpatrick says he also sees some problems created by the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which he calls the “elephant in the room”.  

Nojay, a freshman Assemblyman from the Rochester region, says he, too  is “appalled” by Albany’s pay to play culture, but he has a different solution for curbing corruption. He says government should stop interfering with private business interests.

“As long as there’s a bag of cash on one side of the table, and special interests on the other side, and government officials playing referee and divvying it up, you’re going to have corruption,” Nojay said.  

“It’s as old as human kind.”

The Moreland Commission is charged with coming up with ideas for campaign finance reform, but it also has the power to investigate potential wrong doing by elected officials. Several subpoenas have been issued and Fitzpatrick says the commission has already “discovered criminality” that it will detail in its report next month, for referral to prosecutors.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.