Kohlberg in Crain’s: Public Financing Will Restore Public Trust [Op-Ed]

Op-Ed: Public financing, public trust

New York state needs campaign finance reform

Crain’s New York Business

Jerome Kohlberg

April 28, 2013

As a business executive for many years, I have seen government most effective when it is able to work efficiently and in the public interest. As we were reminded again in April with the arrests of two of our state lawmakers, campaign finance laws have long posed a major obstacle to good government. That is why I care so deeply about campaign reform. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s leadership on this issue offers us a chance to change our broken system. We should take it.

Recently, the governor strongly reaffirmed his support of a small-donor public matching system that would provide funds to candidates who voluntarily accept expenditure limits and additional disclosure. The public matching system of campaign finance has proved to be a success in New York City, where it has been in use for more than 20 years.

The city’s system now matches small donations below $175 at a six-to-one ratio, a powerful incentive for candidates to spend time with everyday New Yorkers, amplifying their voices. And, according to Brennan Center research, it enables a more diverse range of candidates to run competitive campaigns, thereby increasing voters’ choices at the polls.

A small-donor matching system is best suited to solving the state government’s deep dilemma. It would draw more donors into our campaign finance system and help hold policymakers accountable to their constituents, not just a wealthy few.

Many believe that business leaders uniformly favor a system where the biggest check has the greatest influence over elections and public policy. They are wrong. Most of us in the business community want honest, open government that doesn’t owe favors or give preferential treatment. The best businesspeople want government to set a clear path for growth and opportunity.

Business leaders have complained about Albany for as long as I can remember. And they are right. Far too often, the special interests with money to spend on lobbyists and campaign contributions dominate the debate. But this year, Albany leaders have a chance to profoundly change business as usual in the capital.

A recent poll commissioned by the Committee for Economic Development found that among New York business leaders, 62% believe large corporate donations are bad for the political process, while 72% support creating a public financing system that would give average citizens more incentive to contribute to campaigns.

New York state government is known nationwide for its dysfunction, backroom deals and influence peddling. Last December, leaders from both parties in the state Senate came together to form a bipartisan majority. They pledged to work cooperatively to restore public trust in their troubled legislative body through open and honest government. But months later, there is no sign of a reform agenda from the Senate, and significantly, no action has been taken on a voluntary system of public funding of elections.

Mr. Cuomo has eloquently expressed the public’s frustration with all institutions of government. Lamenting the fundamental distrust that voters now have for their elected officials, he said, “Nothing will restore the trust more than campaign finance, and until we have campaign finance, nothing else will.”

That is a savings money truly can’t buy.

Jerome Kohlberg is a retired founder of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and president of the Kohlberg Foundation. He is a member of New York Leadership for Accountable Govern-ment, a committee of business and civic leaders organized by the Brennan Center and other civic groups.

A version of this article appears in the April 29, 2013, print issue of Crain’s New York Business as “Public financing, public trust”.

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