Public campaign finance limited to comptroller

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ALBANY—State budget bills printed late Friday include public campaign financing for just one political office this year: The state comptroller, something good government advocates balked at as an overall failure to accomplish comprehensive campaign finance reform.

The budget bills appear to form the basis for a legislative agreement on the state budget, though leaders have yet to formally announce a deal.

The compromise on campaign finance appeared particularly uncertain on Saturday, after State Senator Jeff Klein, the co-leader of the Senate's governing coalition, said in a statement that negotiations over public financing were "not yet done."

With no press conference and no fanfare, the state’s budget bills were placed on member desks at midnight Saturday—the printer still going on the last sections as late as 12:15. Many office lights stayed on throughout the Capitol building, and a few members came in and out of the Assembly chambers to pick up their copies.

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Public campaign financing had remained the last big mystery in the budget Friday evening, as details of the other sections had leaked. The usual gaggle of good government advocates lingered in the halls until at least 6 p.m., hoping for any scrap of information. It wasn’t clear what time negotiations ended.

Cuomo included a campaign finance reform bill in his state budget in January, but was dismissive about its chances early in private meetings with leaders, though he became more active on the issue later in the process, sources said.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli supports the use of his seat as a pilot program of sorts for public financing, but he and good government advocates had hoped for something more and different.

“We are disappointed that Governor Cuomo has fumbled this historic opportunity to fix Albany’s culture of corruption,” said Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group in a statement shortly after the budget bills were released.

Alex Camarda, spokesman for Citizens Union, said: "Limiting public financing to the comptroller's office is a solution to yesteryear's problems, not a reform that befits the times."

The tentative compromise could also affect Cuomo's relationship with the Working Families Party, which has been threatening to withhold its endorsement unless Cuomo passed progressive legislation, including campaign finance.

At a meeting Monday with a group of influential labor leaders representing some of the state’s powerful unions, including 1199 SEIU, 32BJ, the Hotel Trades Council and the Communications Workers of America, Cuomo said he couldn't pass a budget with campaign finance reform because of Senate opposition, and pressed the leaders to rein in the restive members of the Working Families Party, who vote on the party's endorsement.

After reviewing the budget bills, Karen Scharff, the executive director of Citizen Action of New York and a co-chair of the Working Families Party, encouraged proponents to keep fighting until the bills come to the floor for a vote, which is expected to happen on Monday.

"There are several days before this budget will be voted on," she said in a statement. "There is plenty of time for this state's leaders to deliver a public campaign funding system for all statewide and legislative races. New Yorkers deserve real reform and it's still within reach."

A few details, from the budget language:

Under the proposed system, the candidates will have to raise funds on their own—and report every contribution of $1,000 or more within two days. The contribution limit per person is $6,000.

Before becoming eligible, the candidates will need to raise $200,000, and $2,000 of that will need to come from contributions between $10 and $75 from New York residents.

DiNapoli has $2.1 million in the bank, so any existing contributions exceeding this limit will need to be refunded to donors or placed in a separate account that can’t be touched during this election cycle. According to an analysis by NYPIRG's Mahoney, opting into the system would make DiNapoli forfeit nearly 73 percent of what he's raised. It's also possible, Mahoney said, that the Board of Elections won't issue the necessary regulations for the system with any length of time before the election. In the past, the board (which has two Republican and two Democratic commissioners) has missed deadlines.

DiNapoli, who does not have a warm relationship with Cuomo, issued a tart statement expressing displeasure with the deal and saying he and his aides were not involved.

"The process was flawed: I was excluded from the negotiations, and it appears a historic opportunity was missed for comprehensive campaign finance reform and public financing for all statewide and legislative offices," DiNapoli said. "There are also questions on whether this proposal can be fairly and reasonably implemented in such a short time frame.”

Participating candidates will periodically submit reports, to be reviewed by the Board of Elections which will have four days to disburse funds.

The board will also scrutinize candidate expenditures, and deny any not used for campaign purposes. All unspent funds will need to be returned to the board.

The state will not match contributions from lobbyists, anonymous donors, vendors for campaigns or transfers from political parties or other committees.