October 23, 2012
Leave it to Pedro Espada to drive home the state’s inability to its enforce election laws.
The Legislature needs to change that.
It’s impossible, this close to Election Day, to have a conversation with a candidate for state Legislature without the absurdly high cost of running for office coming up. They all lament it, even the incumbents whose re-election is far too often assured by their overwhelming advantages in campaign fundraising.
The question is, what can the people in state government do to fix this?
The most obvious solution — publicly financed campaigns — remains for now beyond the politics of the possible in New York. Too many incumbents are wary of leveling the field to the extent that seemingly every legislative challenger enthusiastically favors.
There’s a partisan split there, too, with Republicans in particular adverse to an idea that has much more support among Democrats.
Yet New York needs a consensus for some changes to the campaign finance laws. Otherwise we’re condemned to one election cycle after another of candidates objecting to what they’ll never actually change.
They might start, then, by demanding two reforms that no one would dare speak out against: more vigorous enforcement of the existing campaign finance laws and much more complete disclosure of campaign contributions.
The need for both is in the news again, thanks to the misdeeds of the unapologetically corrupt Pedro Espada Jr. The former state senator — and, astoundingly, Senate majority leader during the summer of the 2009 coup — has gotten his comeuppance. Yet even as Mr. Espada is headed to federal prison on tax evasion charges for stealing $400,000 from the Bronx health care center he created, he has yet to pay more than $30,000 in fines for so blatantly violating the state’s often lax campaign finance laws.
We can even imagine him, quite possibly New York’s most inglorious political felon, defiantly asking just who can force him and his campaign to make good on those fines.
It’s not the state Board of Elections, alas — not as it continues to exist to the embarrassment of both public officials and the people they’re supposed to serve. The fact that more than 2,300 campaign committees, controlling a total of more than $31 million, can get away with not filing timely reports qualifies as a scandal of its own.
So let’s at least insist that all these advocates of at least some sort of campaign finance reform who will be in the Legislature come January give the Board of Elections the resources it needs to do its job, in the form of staff as well as any necessary and reasonable enforcement power it might need. Perhaps if the board, after due process, could garnishee a campaign fund, candidates might feel a greater sense of urgency.
New Yorkers are forever being told by opponents of public financing and stricter limits on contributions that the real answer is simply more transparency and enforcement of the laws already on the books. Yet in practice, we see neither.
More staff will cost money, of course. But New York can’t afford not to have a Board of Elections unable to do its job. The failure to uphold even modest campaign finance laws leaves us with elected officials who don’t feel they need to be bothered obeying laws that require them to tell people who’s giving them campaign money. Is that who New Yorkers want representing them in state government?