Here’s something that isn’t on many people’s radar in New York, let alone across the nation, and it should be: the fight to enact public financing of elections in New York State.

A good system already exists in New York City and that’s part of the reason this isn’t considered an off-the-wall idea. An even bigger reason is that Governor Andrew Cuomo made it one of the pillars of his reform agenda—campaigning on it and noting it in the State of the State address—and sources say legislation is now in the works. The moment is fast-approaching when the new Governor will either make good on his pledge—putting real muscle into the fight for what advocates call “voter-owned elections, with public financing”—or risk alienating his progressive base.

For Cuomo, there are many sound reasons to pass such a bill, and at least one reason not to. Whether he goes forward with his commitment remains to be seen, but for the moment I’m choosing to be hopeful. 

Governor Cuomo is indisputably a skilled politician. His poll ratings are sky-high.  He just passed a budget that in truth is not so different from what Republican Governors are promoting around the country. It’s disappointing—to say the least—that he’s bought into the “better business climate” argument and reduced taxes on the wealthy at a moment when he should be calling on them to pay their fair share. New York State is already the most unequal of the 50 states, with the richest 1 percent bringing home 35 percent of the income, and Cuomo’s move to let a modest surcharge on the wealthy expire will deepen that inequality.   So much for progressive taxation.

So the Governor understands he now needs to strike a progressive chord. Perhaps he’s counting on passage of Marriage Equality to satisfy progressives. It should, because it’s the right thing—but only up to a point. This is New York, after all, not Iowa (where gay marriage is already legal), and public opinion here is overwhelmingly in favor of full civil rights for gay people.

For my money, the big question-mark that progressives should keep their eye on is whether Cuomo will turn New York into the biggest state to push back against the Supreme Court’s anti-democratic Citizens United decision in a serious way—that means promoting and fighting and twisting arms for voter-owned, not corporate-owned elections. (See lobbyist Joe Strasburg candidly discuss what he expects in return for corporate campaign contributions at the 6:10 mark here.)

The business forces that backed Cuomo to the hilt on the budget fight will pull out all the stops to defeat any public financing bill. The Republican Senate will call it “welfare for politicians.” The leader of the State Assembly is a strong proponent—which is a huge plus—but there are also plenty of incumbent Democrats who oppose reform for the obvious reason that they fear funded competitors. (This is the kind of short-sighted thinking that Congressional Democrats no doubt regret, as they could and should have passed the Federal version of voter-owned elections, the Fair Elections Act, on the first day of the session when they had both houses. But that’s another story.)

So it’ll be a battle. The Working Families Party, the Brennan Center, Citizen Action of New York and many pro-democracy, good government groups are working hard to get this on the Governor’s “must-do” agenda. But if Governor Cuomo is a pragmatist, as those close to him say he is, and truly interested in reshaping government so that it can be an effective force in New Yorkers’ lives, he will choose to stand with the people –and stand up against the cynical idea that—in politics—only money talks.

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