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Reclaiming elections ; Cuomo's call for public financing would help restore faith in system

The limits on New York's campaign finance laws are so sky-high they can hardly be called limits. A single donor can direct up to $55,900 to a statewide candidate for each election cycle. That's more than the median household income in this state. Contribution limits to state legislative candidates, too, dwarf the amount individuals can contribute even to presidential wannabes.

Then there are the loosey-goosey ways that special interests direct money through political action committees, and business owners direct money through corporate siblings, all to buy the influence that corrodes legislation and policy. Further, New York lets candidates and incumbents spend their cash on personal expenses unrelated to their campaigns. That transforms political contributions into personal gifts or, well, bribes.

At a high point in his State of the State speech, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo aimed again at the government financing of campaigns as a goal that would help our state legislators clean up their collective act, because they can't do it themselves. At first blush, it seems like a fine but less pressing objective, given New York's other festering crises. But it makes perfect sense to take the wire brush to campaign financing while cleaning up the rest of Albany's mess because rigged elections are at the root of so many problems.

Albany is drowning in red ink because it has operated in an ethical swamp for decades. Absent a decent sense of ethics, Albany sells its influence to special interests that help keep incumbents in power. Thus, New York supports unhelpful laws that, for example, benefit trial lawyers and public-employee unions even though they drive up taxes and drive out jobs. Weak ethics -- and elections stacked toward incumbents -- deliver only more of the same old, same old.

Public financing of campaigns isn't a panacea but it's a start. It would dilute the influence of special-interest money on governing. It would give challengers better footing to advance their ideas. Combined with nonpartisan legislative redistricting, it would make elections more fair by leveling the playing field.

The Assembly last year passed a law to allow participating candidates for state office to receive matching grants of up to $4 for every $1 they raise, and drastically lower the amount that individuals and party organizations can contribute. Again, it is only a start. Candidates still would be allowed to gather donations, and the law does not eradicate the parallel spending by special interests on a candidate's behalf, though it mandates good reporting on such spending. In short, the law has some soft spots.

The government would provide campaign financing from a fund that would be filled by the voluntary contributions of New Yorkers; they could check a box on their income tax form in order to provide $5. While the Senate has yet to pass such legislation, here's another suggestion: The fund should be kicked off by dumping in every last dime from those four state legislative campaign funds -- run by Senate and Assembly Republicans and Democrats. Those party campaign committees, which sell their influence collectively, could be closed, both as a gesture of goodwill to New Yorkers and because, in theory, they would be needed no longer.

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