The state of New York has become an embarrassing example of what can happen when money is allowed to rule politics. Earlier this month, for instance, two state lawmakers were arrested on corruption charges. It's a story that has become all too familiar in Albany, where a pervasive culture of corruption has led to the convictions of at least 13 state elected officials in the last ten years.
But New York and its governor, Andrew Cuomo, now have an opportunity to shed the state's pay-to-play image and lead the nation in fighting corruption. Good government advocates are pushing for the state to adopt a public financing system based on one that has met with success in New York City. The plan, which would provide matching funds for small donors, would help give candidates without big party or corporate backing the chance to compete in statewide elections. It would allow more voices to be heard in the political process and ensure that elected offices won't be handed to the highest bidder.
The Syracuse Post-Standard, in endorsing the measure, wrote, "There will always be more pressing spending priorities for taxpayer money. But when those priorities are thrown out of whack by the influence of big money on our politicians, something fundamental has to change." And all too often in New York, the priorities of voters are being superseded by the priorities of big campaign donors.
Shortly after the latest scandal, Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill to increase the penalties on state lawmakers accused of graft. That measure is useful, but on its own is not enough to change the culture in Albany. The public financing proposal, which would provide a meaningful solution to the problem of big money in New York politics, needs the governor's active support. So far, although supportive, Gov.Cuomo has not expended the energy in support of the measure needed for it to pass. He now has the chance to weigh in more forcefully and distinguish himself as a national leader on clean elections. With his full-throated endorsement, the measure would have a strong chance of becoming law, and New York could go from being one of the clearest examples of corrupt government to become a national model of reform.
Since the Supreme Court's outrageous Citizens United decision, which unleashed unlimited and unaccountable corporate spending into national politics, Americans have become increasingly wary of big-money influence in elections. A poll late last year found that 90 percent of Americans thought there was too much money in politics — true bipartisan agreement! 84 percent agreed that "corporate money drowns out the voices of ordinary people." That's a lot of distrust from almost everybody in this country.
As a national movement to overturn Citizens United gains support, states and cities are leading the way with innovative and popular good government measures. New York, with Gov. Cuomo's support, could go from being a symbol of corruption to having some of the strongest clean elections laws in the country. That would be quite an enduring legacy.