Albany Times Union
April 18, 2012
Our opinion: Why can’t the state rewrite its campaign finance laws? Public financing might well pay dividends — in increased civic participation.
Consider the possibilities, New York. State government no longer shows signs of being so thoroughly broken. Budgets are passed on time — keeping spending in check, for a change, and chipping away at the deficit. The state’s tax laws are fairer than they used to be. Gay marriage has been legal for months.
So what should top the agenda for the final two months of a legislative session that’s mercifully free of impending crisis? This: Reduce the onerous influence of money on state politics and government.
That’s one area where New York still stands out as an example of government failing to serve the very people it’s supposed to represent. The costs of running for public office are too high here, and the people who supply the money — less than 1 percent of the state’s adult population, close to the lowest rate in the country — are disproportionately high rollers and special interests.
Just 6 percent of the money in the 2010 elections in New York came from donors who gave $250 or less, according to research by Michael Malbin, a University at Albany professor and director of the Campaign Finance Institute.
Seventy-eight percent of the money came from either donors who gave at least $1,000 or outfits like the political action committees that represent everything from corporations to unions. Their donations can go as high as $8,200 for state Assembly races and $16,800 for state Senate elections.
What to do?
For starters, the Legislature needs to lower those contribution limits, which are up to 12 times higher in New York than they are at the federal level. Then legislators must pass the public campaign financing plan pushed by Governor Cuomo.
Matching small donations with public funds, as Mr. Cuomo urges, makes the contributions from ordinary voters worth exponentially more, research by the Campaign Finance Institute finds. New York City, for example, does a 6-1 match of contributions of up to $175. Had such a system been in place statewide in 2010, it would have boosted small donors’ share to 30 percent of the money spent in that election cycle. More such donations, of course, would push that percentage higher.
That’s an investment that would likely lead to more people voting and getting more involved in political campaigns, says Mr. Malbin. It’s about time: No state had lower participation in the last election than New York. Combine that with tighter rules on how campaign money is spent, particularly for personal uses, and a system distorted by a few well-heeled people and groups might better live up to its billing as a government of the people.
The possibility of a surge in civic engagement serves as a good counterargument to those who resist public campaign financing. To be sure, there’s some resonance to the argument offered by the Republicans who control the state Senate that private political campaigns are the wrong place for a cash-strapped state to spend what would come to about $30 million a year.
But they need to answer this: If we can’t afford public campaign financing, can we afford the low voter participation and the control that the tiny elite who do give money to candidates have over elections? That’s the true cost of the status quo.
Get used to such questions, New Yorkers. They’ll be asked again and again, all in the quest to further revive and reform state government.