Fair Elections System Key to Fighting Albany Corruption [Op-Ed]

Public Financing Is First Step in Curing Albany’s Ills

Press and Sun Bulletin

By Larry Norden

October 2, 2012

The latest Albany scandals — the use of state money to settle New York Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s charges of sexual harassment and state Sen. Shirley Huntley’s alleged misuse of funds from her nonprofit — are stark reminders of the need for transparency and ethics in the Empire State. As Albany’s dysfunction continues to breed public apathy and cynicism, now is the time to re-engage citizens and fight corruption through a Fair Elections system of public financing state elections.

Current campaign finance laws in New York allow some of the largest limits for donations to state races across the country. A recent analysis of state election funds from NYPIRG found that 127 donors gave $50,000 or more to statewide candidates and political parties over the past year, for a total of nearly $17 million. Unless we reform the campaign finance system, large contributions will continue to drown out the voice of regular citizens.

In a Fair Elections system, candidates who agree to expenditure limits and enhanced disclosure receive multiple matching funds for each small donation they raise. This would lower contribution limits, provide greater transparency, and shift the fulcrum of state elections from big money to small donors. By empowering ordinary voters, public financing systems widen the circle of democracy and combat the influence of corrupting money in politics.

Numerous studies of public financing systems reach the same conclusion: They enable elected officials to place their constituents’ interests above the concerns of special interests. While working on Arizona’s prescription drug bill, then-governor Janet Napolitano described how being a publicly-funded candidate allowed her to operate in the best interest of her constituents rather than being swayed by pharmaceutical companies. A Fair Elections system would require Albany lawmakers to fund their campaigns with contributions from the voters in their own districts, rather than out-of-district special interest donors.

Small donor matching also makes elections more competitive. A recent report by the Brennan Center and Campaign Finance Institute demonstrates that a matching program fosters diversity in the electoral process by encouraging all people to participate, not just the very wealthy. Public funding encourages new candidates who might not have the backing of big donors to run for office and narrows the often insurmountable gap between incumbents and challengers.

Small donor matching is already happening in the city of New York — and it works. The city program has thrived and New Yorkers have overwhelmingly voted in favor of the system. Maine and parts of Connecticut have also had success implementing public financing systems. At a time of pinched budgets and fiscal uncertainty, it’s more important than ever that our elections are funded by clean money to elect candidates who will the right decisions for the people and not lobbyists. The cost to the public is miniscule, while the effects of a broken Albany cost taxpayers every day.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has publicly called on campaign finance laws to be reformed, but the legislature has not yet acted. This is not and should not be a partisan matter. Public financing systems across the country have shown to benefit candidates across the political spectrum, with the majority of incumbents and challengers — Democrats, Republicans and minor parties — choosing to participate.

We are at a crucial moment to transform the political culture of Albany and effect meaningful change that would reform the system to be more accountable, fair and representative of the people of New York. A small donor matching system will not cure every ill in Albany, but we must begin somewhere, and a Fair Elections system is the crucial first step.

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