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Citizens left out in cold on funding of elections

If having two former State Legislature leaders on their way to prison – hopefully – and an administration dodging indictment – so far – isn’t enough to scare Albany into returning elections to average citizens, what will it take? Apparently more.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave public funding of campaigns only a perfunctory mention in Wednesday’s State of the State speech, as he has done before with no real follow-through. It’s no wonder that advocates of reform have been more focused on other changes when prioritizing the many ways the Capitol needs to be cleaned up.

They were looking instead at restricting outside incomes – which helped make former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver a felon – and closing the “LLC loophole” that treats limited liability corporations like people, letting them ignore the $5,000 cap on political contributions that other corporations face. The Brennan Center for Justice already has sued over that issue while also advocating public funding. Asked if there’s been any softening of GOP opposition to the latter, Lawrence Norden, the center’s deputy director, said, “Not that I have seen yet.”

Such a system would let candidates avoid being bought by corporations, unions and PACs, relying instead on small contributions from average citizens, matched by money from the public fund. Cuomo has pushed it, tepidly, before, only to give up and settle for a poorly conceived pilot project limited to only the State Comptroller’s Office.

So far, 13 states have some form of public funding, according to the National Council of State Legislatures, while several localities, including New York City, also have empowered average citizens. You would think the recent convictions of Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos would be enough to goad New York State.

But while Albany dithers, a Buffalo task force of good-government groups appointed by the Common Council is re-energizing itself following the latest Capitol convictions and the lack of contested local races. The group expects to submit its proposals for a Buffalo public funding system by spring, said Megan Connelly of the Partnership for the Public Good, which will make the reform its No. 1 priority for 2016.

While Buffalo is not nearly as corrupt as Albany, the impetus here is “getting more people involved in democracy,” Connelly said. That won’t happen when running for office seems out of reach to the average person because of the huge sums of money involved and when, for the very same reason, the outcome seems preordained.

As Common Cause New York has noted, more than 90 percent of the money given to candidates in New York City’s 2013 election under its public funding system came from individuals, not PACs or unions, compared with only 31 percent of the money given in the state’s 2014 election. In which system do you think your voice has the greater chance of being heard? Yet the GOP-led Senate continues to balk.

If Buffalo joins New York City, maybe it will create enough momentum to compel state officials to follow along, if for no other reason than not to be embarrassed that the state’s two biggest cities care more about democracy than they do.

But then again, if embarrassment were the impetus for action, New York State would have had public funding a long time ago.