Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants new limits on secret campaign funds to offset Citizens United

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday announced a proposal intended to stem the flow of outside political money, a problem that he said allows supposedly independent groups to hijack elections by circumventing campaign finance restrictions.

Legislation announced by the Democratic governor would strengthen rules prohibiting independent groups from working with campaigns to elect specific candidates. It also would require greater disclosure of spending by independent groups.

The measure was prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which said the First Amendment prohibits restrictions on independent political spending, which critics say allows wealthy donors, organizations or even candidates themselves to use independent groups to avoid campaign finance limits.

"Citizens United actually decimates the right to free speech by allowing it to be eclipsed by paid speech," Cuomo said Wednesday during an appearance at Fordham University School of Law to announce his plan. "... Citizens United birthed an industry of shadow political corporations. Spending by outside groups, those who operate independently of political candidates, has exploded."

Cuomo also released a legal opinion from his top counsel that seeks to clarify ambiguities in current rules prohibiting coordination. The opinion, meant to advise prosecutors or groups like the state Board of Elections, lays out several indications of improper cooperation between a candidate and an independent group. They include sharing major donors or office space, or family members or former staffers of the candidate who lead the independent organization.

The legislation comes just days before lawmakers plan to adjourn their 2016 session. It remains to be seen whether it will fare any better than Cuomo proposals to limit the outside income of lawmakers or to close a loophole allowing limited liability companies to circumvent campaign finance limits.

Republican Senate Leader John Flanagan said the Senate would review Cuomo's proposal.

"While we cannot stop the flood of money, I agree there is more we must do to increase transparency and disclosure surrounding the activities of these outside groups," he said in a statement emailed to reporters.

In 2014, independent expenditures amounted to a quarter of the $60 million spent on state Senate campaigns in New York.

Good government groups lauded Cuomo for taking on outside political money. But they criticized Albany for failing to properly address government ethics, a problem highlighted by the recent convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, on unrelated federal corruption charges.

"This is a bold, necessary proposal," Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said of Cuomo's newest ideas. "But the Legislature is going to leave next week, sadly, with no movement at all on any ethics reform measure coming out of the convictions of Dean Skelos and Shelley Silver. Our Watergate moment has occurred here in New York State and we are walking away from the legislative session with nothing to show for it."