NY progressives push for public campaign finances

ALBANY, N.Y. -- A coalition of major labor unions, progressive political groups and good-government advocates is trying to push New York's Legislature to adopt public financing of campaigns. The effort, aimed at a likely special session after the elections, would be used as a national model.

The groups have joined with the influential Working Families Party to meet Thursday in Manhattan to force a trade-off for public financing of campaigns in exchange for pay raises sought by legislators. National leaders of the Communications Workers of America, the Sierra Club and the NAACP are scheduled to attend to help plot a way to make New York a national model to expand public financing of campaigns.

"This has gotten more movement than anyone thought it could, but it's still about the heaviest lift in politics," said Dan Cantor, executive director of the left-leaning Working Families Party that works closely with Democrats.

So-called super political action committees with few restraints on spending for or against policies or candidates are emboldened by a 2010 Supreme Court decision. The Citizens United case stripped many restrictions on campaign spending and allowed wealthy individuals and corporations a louder voice for and against candidates they choose.

Public financing of campaigns remains one of the biggest campaign promises of Gov. Andrew Cuomo that remains unfulfilled.

He and lawmakers have said a post-election session is possible in November or December and legislative pay raises could be on the agenda. That would be a leverage point for a trade for other major issues, including the voluntary public financing of campaigns and raising the minimum wage, which is another Cuomo goal. The Senate's GOP lawmakers, however, say raises aren't a priority for them and oppose using public money for campaigns. They seek a jobs program with tax breaks for businesses.

Cuomo has repeatedly said public pressure is needed to push lawmakers to restrict a system which has helped keep them in power. Public financing of campaigns and raising the minimum wage also track national Democratic politics, should Cuomo seek to run for president in 2016.

"I think what's important is we get the support groups to come up with a common agenda and then we push," Cuomo said in July.

In June, The New York Times reported the creation of Protect Our Democracy, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group and political action committee with wealthy donors who seek public financing of campaigns in coordination with Cuomo. Cuomo also coordinates with Albany's biggest lobbying group, the Committee to Save New York, formed to support the Democrat's policies through multi-million dollar TV ad campaigns.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has pushed the bill as a way to reduce the influence of money in government.

"Fair elections go to the heart of our democracy and are essential to preserving good government," Silver said Wednesday. "In light of the devastating effects the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision has had on federal elections, we in New York should be leading the way in reducing the influence of money in our own elections. Let us be the model for the rest of the nation and lead the way to establishing and preserving fair elections."

Silver's bill would create an option for statewide and legislative candidates to choose public financing, with restrictions on fundraising and the use of campaign funds.

"We oppose using taxpayer dollars to fund political campaigns," said Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Nassau County Republican. "Those funds should be invested in schools and road and bridge repair. We have limited resources."