Source: Cuomo and Moreland commissioners now considering a constitutional amendment

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Cuomo announces the anti-corruption commission. (Flickr)
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ALBANY—Aides to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and commissioners of the anti-corruption panel he appointed may take plans for a system of public campaign finance and propose them as a constitutional amendment, according to a source familiar with discussions between the commission and the administration.

The governor's aides have been in regular contact with members of the Moreland Commission that was formed in July. It's unclear which side first brought up the idea of an amendment, which the source says is now under discussion. 

The commission has held two public hearings already, and to this point no witness has suggested the need to amend the state constitution to set up a public financing system. The testimony has focused on ideas for legislation that the commission will put forward in an expected December report that will, in turn, form the basis for negotiations with legislators when the return in January.

Packaging public financing as a constitutional amendment could make those proposals more palatable to resistant legislators, in part because an amendement would face several additional hurdles to becoming law and could not take effect for at least five years. Democrats in the Senate and Assembly support a system where small donations are multiplied with public funds, but Republicans have attacked this idea, citing some officials who abused the system and an ideological aversion to using taxpayer funds to pay for elections.

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From the Cuomo perspective, pursuing an amendment could also change an increasingly unfavorable storyline, which has come to focus on ths administration's interference with the very commission he created, to considerable fanfare.

Cuomo, a Democrat, proposed a public financing system in an omnibus anti-corruption bill that landed with a thud in the final weeks of this year's legislative session. It was complete inaction on the topic, after a year marked by the arrest of two sitting senators and one assemblyman, that led Cuomo to appoint the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption in July.

But it hasn't gone so well. Legislators rebuffed its request to disclose their outside business and law clients, and the first volley of subpoenas included real estate firms that are major donors to the governor and the Democratic State Committee's housekeeping account, a no-limits fund that Cuomo appropriated to run a series of boosting ads.

And now it seems Cuomo is trying to snatch a productive end from the jaws of stalemate. A Moreland Commission spokeswoman acknowledged on Monday that it is in regular contact with the administration, something that was clear after the Daily News reported it had held back subpoenas at Cuomo aides' request. A story in this morning's New York Times suggested that his aides are also in talks with legislative leaders about some sort of legislative package, something which spokespeople did not deny.

Cuomo proposed a six-to-one matching system in June, and refused to negotiate details with legislators.

But this latest play looks and smells a lot like how Cuomo handled the once-a-decade issue of legislative redistricting. He insisted for months that he would veto lines that were gerrymandered, but in the end let stand the products of legislative electioneering in exchange for a slew of other agenda items and a constitutional amendment that somewhat wrested the redistricting pen from legislators' hands. Good-government groups are split on the half-loaf measure, which goes before

Cuomo claimed he reformed the system — starting, maybe, in 10 years. But he can rightly point out that it's more than any governor has done in decades to inject some measure of public interest into the redistricting process.

To become a law, a constitutional amendment must be passed by two consecutively elected legislatures and then approved by voters at the polls. If an amendment were settled upon immediately, it couldn't go to the voters until 2015 at the earliest. Campaign finance rules are adopted by the State Board of Elections on a four-year cycle, Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group pointed out, meaning any changes could not take effect until the 2018 legislative elections or the 2022 gubernatorial election.

Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo's spokeswoman, said the governor was holding firm to his position in June.

“This is the same old, same old,” she said in a statement. “The New York State legislature must restore the public trust. They refused to pass reforms last year and left the Governor no choice but to empanel the Moreland Commission. Rumor mill notwithstanding, there is no change in positions. The governor wants the reform package he put forth last year passed, and the legislature’s position then and now is to resist the need for reform.”

Moreland Commission spokeswoman Michelle Duffy declined to comment. The commissioners will gather tomorrow, privately.