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Will 2014 be a year of reform in Albany?

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2013 saw more state lawmakers indicted, jailed, convicted, and even participating in wiretapping some of their colleagues. The continued corruption spurred Governor Cuomo to appoint a commission to look into the legislature. Will 2014 be the year Albany finally sees reform?After a new wave of indictments against state lawmakers in the spring, Governor Cuomo tried to convince the legislature to adopt public financing of campaigns, the closing of loopholes for large donors, and better policing of the laws.

When there was no agreement, Cuomo followed through on a threat and launched an anti-corruption commission to, in essence, investigate the legislature. The commission’s exact instructions were to look at potential violations and lack of enforcement at the notoriously lax state Board of Elections.  

“The recent rash of wrongdoing by legislators in Albany has shaken the public confidence, the public trust in government,” Cuomo said at the time. “You hear about it from one end of this state to the other.”

The Moreland Commission, after several months of hearings and investigations, concluded in early December that public financing of statewide political campaigns would go a long ways toward curbing the influence of large money donors.

The commission also recommended closing loopholes, like unlimited donations by Limited Liability Companies, and creating a new independent agency to actually enforce campaign finance laws.

Seven of the 25 Moreland Commissioners dissented from the view that public campaign financing would solve problems. Governor Cuomo, one day after the report had been released, seemed to be backing away from public campaign financing. He pointed to the dissenting commissioner’s opinion, as well as opposition in the Republican-led State Senate, as reasons why it might be hard to get public campaign finance enacted.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Cuomo said. “Public finance is a policy/political issue.”

The governor later clarified that he remains “100%” in favor of adopting a public matching donor program for statewide races.

Karen Scharff, with Citizen Action, is part of a coalition pressing for public campaign financing. She believes it’s the only way to end what she calls Albany’s “pay to play” culture and to finally lessen the influence of money in politics.

“It’s now really important the governor move forward strongly with the set of proposals that the commission recommended,” Scharff said. “And that the legislative leaders join him in that.” 

Many business groups are against the idea, saying it would not be a good use of the taxpayer’s money. Heather Briccetti is President of the state’s Business Council.

“I understand the idea of having a larger donor pool,” Briccetti said. “But I don’t think that should be on the taxpayers.”  

There are currently not enough votes in the State Senate, which is ruled by Republicans and a group of break away Democrats, in order to pass public campaign financing. But advocates say Governor Cuomo achieved other agreements, to allow same sex marriage and enact gun control legislation, despite initial resistance in the Senate.

Susan Weber, an activist with Move On, says Governor Cuomo can get an agreement if he so chooses.

“I think the governor would like to go down in history as the governor who ended corruption in New York State,” Weber said.

Governor Cuomo, at an end of the year cabinet meeting, said he still considers campaign finance reform and the other recommendations of the Moreland Act Commission a “top tier” priority, but says he will first focus on the state budget and a tax cutting plan. But Cuomo says the two are not mutually exclusive.

“The Moreland and reform options are not the enemy of economic development,” Cuomo said.

Meanwhile, the legislature has been challenging some of the subpoenas issued by the Moreland Commission in court, saying the Cuomo-appointed panel does not have the right to look into details of their private law clients or political campaign operations.

The court dates for those arguments was recently moved to next March 17, an indication that lawmakers may try to reach a settlement on reform at about the same time that they reach a budget deal, which is due in late March.

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.