April 23, 2013
The latest corruption outbreak has spawned no fewer than four competing proposals to clean up Albany. Public financing of campaigns is at the center of three of them, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he’s in favor. It is a concept whose time has come. When combined with spending limits and other electoral reforms, public campaign financing has the potential to disrupt Albany in a way that previous, half-hearted attempts to curb corruption have failed to do.
Public campaign financing will not cure all that ails the body politic. It cannot detect a larcenous heart. But it seems a relatively cheap and sensible step toward restoring confidence that state government — the Legislature, in particular — acts in the public’s interest.
We do not endorse the idea lightly, or with a blank check. Politicians intent on gaming the system usually find a way. Also, there will always be more pressing spending priorities for taxpayer money. But when those priorities are thrown out of whack by the influence of big money on our politicians, something fundamental has to change.
Here’s just one example: In the state budget just adopted, lawmakers and the governor left a $90 million hole in programs helping New York’s disabled while preserving $420 million in incentives to the deep-pocketed film and television industries. A public campaign financing system is projected to cost the state up to $40 million a year — about what New York taxpayers gave ABC Studios to produce the TV shows “Ugly Betty” and “Cupid.” If we value our democracy, we should be willing to invest in it.
Most of the public campaign financing proposals on the table call for a matching every $1 in small campaign donations with $6 in taxpayer money. Proponents say combining that with lower campaign contribution limits would encourage more candidates to run, amplify the voices of average voters and blunt the influence of big-money donors.
They cite New York City, where a small-donor matching system for local elections has been in place since 1997. They point to data showing that while candidates for state office raised only 6 percent of their campaign money from donors giving $250 or less, candidates for city office raised 37 percent of their cash from such small donors. Matching funds give candidates an incentive to engage more voters and hear their concerns.
It’s not a perfect system. While public campaign financing increases the pool of small donors, there is little evidence it increases voter participation. Incumbents still have a fundraising advantage by virtue of having built up a campaign war chest. A well-heeled candidate can spend a fortune to get elected by opting out of public financing. And there’s no limiting political contributions protected as free speech by the U.S. Supreme Court, so money in politics is here to stay.
For all that, public campaign financing has the potential to get more people involved in the political process — the best defense against corruption. It would give average citizens the means to run for office, create competition for entrenched incumbents and — over time — change Albany from the outside in. At least, it’s worth a try.