August 09, 2006

Prefer Comprehensive Campaign Reform

"We all got here from money," Legislator Ellie Mystal (D. Amityville) said. During discussion of South Fork Legislator Jay Schneiderman's proposed campaign finance reform bill in committee last week, the Democrat spoke derisively about the initiative. "I don't see how this bill is going to make us look better," he said in response to North Fork Legislator Ed Romaine's assertion that the proposal is a worthwhile step in an effort to enact comprehensive campaign finance reform.

Schneiderman's bill calls for a ceiling of $500 for contributions from any private firm or its principal that does over $10,000 in business with Suffolk during a given year. He's said his goal in making the proposal is to eliminate the perception of a "pay to play" culture, which hints lucrative county contracts are awarded only to firms that make substantial contributions to campaign funds for politicians.

Debuted earlier this spring, the proposal has been stalled before the Ways and Means committee since, and on the table for discussion several times. Opponents complain that it doesn't go far enough, and that it leaves out another group that makes even larger contributions than private contractors, unions. Weighing in on the bill earlier this spring, Ed Dumas, a spokesman for County Executive Steve Levy, derided the measure as "a pretend reform" because it doesn't include unions.

Mystal, who claims he raises the least amount of money of all the legislators, reiterated the argument last week. He appeared exasperated by continued discussion of the Schneiderman proposal, fulminating, "If we want to do a reform bill, let's do a real reform bill." Suggesting sarcastically that lawmakers refrain from taking contributions from unions or contracts "or anybody," Mystal asked rhetorically, "Where does it end?"

Legislator Lou D'Amaro (D. Huntington Station) opined that he doesn't think Schneiderman's "quick fix" is the way to go. He, too, favors more comprehensive reform. To say the enactment of a $500 contribution ceiling sends a message about the county's commitment to campaign finance reform "is just ludicrous," he rebuked.

Romaine disagreed. The North Fork lawmaker signed on to cosponsor the bill. "This resolution would signal to people that we are concerned," he said, adding that passage of the measure would demonstrate that the legislature "is not interested in squeezing the people who do business with the county."

Democratic opponents on the committee raised a second argument. The state holds the authority to regulate campaign finance. Schneiderman's proposal could run afoul of that authority and may be pre-empted. Legislator John Kennedy (R. Nesconset) reminded that the legislature has "rarely ever" withdrawn a bill in the face of pre-emption if the lawmakers believe the legislation is "right minded." He offered that the bill is "a step in the right direction."

With the majority of members on the committee poised to table the bill yet again, Romaine tried another tack. He promised to stop flogging the issue if members of both the Democratic and Republican caucuses convened a committee to hash out a reform bill that would be amenable to both sides of the political aisle.

If that path were embraced around the horseshoe, Romaine promised never to bring Schneiderman's bill up again. The South Fork sponsor of the measure, who is not a member of the Ways and Means committee, was not present for the discussion.

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