Coffey in Buffalo News: Public financing will encourage democracy [Op-Ed]

Reform campaign finance, give all residents a voice

The Buffalo News

By Sean Coffey

July 17, 2012

Every year it’s the same story: lobbyists and special interests pour campaign cash into Albany to influence public policy. But this year could be different. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has pledged to spend the summer building support for a new campaign finance system that would hold legislators accountable to the rest of us.

And it’s not a moment too soon.

New York State has one of the highest contribution limits in the country, capping out at more than $60,000 per person. Our campaign finance laws are so lax that individuals and entities can easily skirt those limits to funnel even larger sums into political coffers. Voters can’t compete. Less than one-half of 1 percent of voters donate to political campaigns, making New York dead last among the states in citizen participation (and 48th in voter turnout).

Recent research by Common Cause shows just how skewed the cash flow has become. In the last election cycle, too many legislators from across the state got most of their contributions from only a few ZIP codes in Albany, Wall Street and the wealthier areas of Manhattan. In the Buffalo area, for example, two state senators received 75 percent to 90 percent of their funds from outside their districts.

We need to encourage voters by instituting a public financing system that will maximize small-dollar donations and, critically, encourage participation in our democracy.

New York City’s system is a great model.

Under the city’s system, a small donation from a private citizen is matched at a 6-to-1 ratio by public funds. That means a $20 donation turns into a $140 donation. The system encourages small donors by multiplying their impact – so much so that in the last three city elections, more than half of all campaign contributions came from first-time donors.

This model encourages candidates to spend their time engaging constituents about real issues instead of entertaining big donors. That means better candidates and better policy. And it makes elected officials more accountable to the people they are supposed to represent.

No matter how honest individual legislators are, our campaign finance system is corrupt. And it’s gotten worse ever since the Supreme Court declared that corporations are entitled to the same rights as natural persons and are therefore entitled to contribute unlimited amounts of money as an expression of free speech. But while PACs and super PACs are gearing up for November, planning for super-spending to influence elections at every level, New York can make itself an exception. With the help of Cuomo – and an engaged public – that’s exactly what we’ll do.

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