Skelos doesn’t rule out campaign finance in budget

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ALBANY—Legislative leaders emerged optimistically from a closed-door budget negotiation on Tuesday, with the only Republican in the room raising hopes that he might agree to a system of public campaign finance in the overall spending plan.

“Everything's being discussed,” Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos said after the two-hour session, when he was asked if he could support a budget that included a campaign finance provision that he and his conference have railed against.

Democrats in both the Assembly and Senate support a system where taxpayer dollars multiply small donations, but the Senate Republicans, who control the chamber in a coalition with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, have repeatedly said such a system would waste taxpayer funds. Skelos himself reiterated that position after a similar closed-door session on Monday and his refusal not to do so was interpreted as a positive tea leaf.

“He didn't rule it out!” Citizen Action Executive Director Karen Scharff stage-whispered to Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters as they both pressed their ears against the scrum of reporters surrounding Skelos and other top lawmakers.

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People briefed on the latest negotiations indicated that they've centered mostly on stronger enforcement at the Board of Elections, and possible changes to the bribery statute, both of which Cuomo proposed during the last legislative session.

The Daily News reported that lawmakers might trade action on those ethics issue for a de-funding of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, which Cuomo convened in July after lawmakers refused to make any ethics or election law changes after a spate of lawmaker arrests in 2013.

Both the Assembly and Senate have de-funded the Moreland Commission in their budget plans, and accused its investigators of a “fishing expedition” designed to browbeat them toward Cuomo's position. A court hearing on the Commission's power to subpoena records related to lawmakers' outside employment is now scheduled for April 7.

Cuomo put a system of public campaign finance in his budget proposal, where he has considerable leverage, and advocates are trying to keep up the pressure to maintain the system in the final agreement. The Public Campaign Action Fund has begun focusing on Cuomo in a television advertising campaign that it has extended through this week.

Cuomo did not emerge from the negotiation to speak to reporters, but will press for a property tax “freeze” plan during an event this afternoon in suburban Syracuse.

Lawmakers said they discussed the Dream Act, which would expand tuition assistance programs to undocumented immigrants, but there was no agreement to include it.

They also indicated a final funding structure of education programs, including pre-kindergarten and facility aid for charter schools, remains outstanding as other issues have been settled.

Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver made quite a show of warmth as they first emerged from the meeting, with Skelos draping his arm around Silver, a Democrat from Lower Manhattan. Silver joked that Skelos was referencing “the judiciary” last week when he said another branch of government was frustrating progress.

Silver said there was “tremendous progress,” but offered nothing more than the obvious as proof.

“We're standing here, together, saying the same thing,” he said.