The New York Times
December 1, 2012
Here’s one way Gov. Andrew Cuomo can match the acclaim he achieved by getting same-sex marriage approved in New York State: persuade the State Legislature to make New York’s system of electing legislators the fairest and most transparent in the country.
Such a system should include a public financing mechanism modeled on New York City’s successful efforts to involve small donors with matching contributions. It would set sensible limits on individual and corporate contributions. It would close loopholes. It would be transparent and strictly enforced. By setting a national standard for public financing, New York State could go from laggard to leader.
The way campaign funds are raised in this state now is scandalous. The restrictions are weak and the enforcement virtually nonexistent. A special interest donor can give any amount — millions of dollars even — to a political party by labeling it for “housekeeping” use. State legislators, especially the leaders of committees, too often get their biggest checks from those who do business with their committees. And they can use their campaign treasuries for almost anything, including country club memberships and personal legal fees — even veterinarian bills for the office cat.
In favoring big contributors, the current system pushes small donors out of the political process. The simplest way to change the system is to emulate New York City. For almost a quarter of a century, the city has succeeded in matching small donations with public funds, now providing $6 for every $1. The matches stop at $175. The city also exercises rigorous oversight and imposes strict rules, including bans on corporate donations, limits on donations from people with business before the city and debate requirements for citywide candidates. Candidates who abuse the system are subject to fines and other penalties. By encouraging small donations and more political participation from ordinary citizens, the city makes it possible for more candidates to run for office. A recent study by the Campaign Finance Institute found that about 7 percent of contributors to state campaigns gave under $250, compared with 38 percent of city contributors to participating candidates. The city’s Campaign Finance Board also determined that a majority of those contributing to candidates in the city’s 2009 elections were first-time contributors, more than 80 percent of whom gave less than $175.
Powerful business coalitions are signing on to the idea of replicating the city’s system on a statewide basis, using focus groups, preparing advertising campaigns and planning individual pitches to lawmakers. One of these is Protect Our Democracy, led by Sean Eldridge, a venture capitalist and political activist. Traditional public interest organizations like the Brennan Center for Justice and Common Cause are also gearing up for a full-fledged campaign on this issue beginning next year.
Mr. Cuomo and his administration are working right now on his State of the State address to present his goals for 2013. This year’s big proposal turned out to be something of a bust: a hastily concocted plan to create a casino in Queens, an idea that he dropped several months later. He also proposed a commendable campaign-finance reform plan that went nowhere.
This time, he should use his considerable political influence to make it happen, changing the money culture in Albany and providing a model for the rest of the country.