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Curb cash for access Campaign finance reform derailed, but it still needs work in Albany

If he who pays the piper gets to call the tune, then the music in Albany is programmed primarily by those who give millions of dollars a year in campaign contributions to those who make our laws.

That's why all sorts of reforms -- those opposed by big business, big labor, big medicine and big lawyers -- never have a chance. And that is why Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer is correct when he says that the only chance for other reforms to take hold in New York State government is for the most important reform, campaign finance rules, to come first.

The governor's push for such a change came to naught in the regular session of the Legislature that wrapped up recently. But it is still a live issue, the subject of a planned series of round-table discussions to take place around the state.

There was much rejoicing when a government ethics reform package, including a ban on all but the most trivial of gifts to public officials, took effect earlier this year. Removing the threat of lawmakers and other public officials being unduly influenced -- not bought -- by precious face time -- not by steak dinners -- was the point of that long-overdue law and by the executive order that preceded it.

Nobody is claiming that lawmakers' votes are bought and paid for by dinners and tickets. But nobody should deny that the access that is bought by those favors is something that gives the givers an advantage over the average citizen inaffecting the direction of state policy.

The same is true of campaign contributions, only more so. Without serious infusions of the lifeblood of politics, most lawmakers wouldn't even be lawmakers. Those who provide that money only do so with the expectation that they are making an investment that will produce dividends, again, not in the form of certain votes or rulings, but just in access and a general feeling of indebtedness.

The corrupting influence of money will never be squeezed out of politics. But reducing its heft, through reforms such as those pushed by the governor, the League of Women Voters and others, definitely would help.

Right now, New York's laws on the subject are among the weakest around, with unlimited soft money to political parties, sky-high limits on the amounts that can be given by each person and to each candidate and various tricks and dodges for evading what limits are in place.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno sees all that money as simply an expression of free speech. But money is not speech. Bruno also argues that most people really don't care. They probably don't care, but that's not something to be happy about. It is more of an indication that most people just presume the political system is seriously tainted and that they are priced out of any participation in it.

They're right about that. Some serious lowering of campaign donation limits would help address that problem.

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