May 17, 2013
New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli came to town last Thursday to stump for public financing of election campaigns, accompanied by Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and Brittany L. Stalsburg, an analyst for Lake Research Partners, which recently released a poll revealing broad support among New Yorkers of all political persuasions for comprehensive election law reform.
“I don’t think there’s any one answer to the problems in Albany,” DiNapoli said, and indeed a number of election law reform packages have been advanced by various camps, including the State Senate’s Independent Democratic Caucus and Governor Andrew Cuomo, in response to the continuing melodrama unfolding in state government. (Not that it’s anything new or inherently Democratic: Did anyone notice that former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno was back in court earlier this month?) The reform package DiNapoli and the Brennan Center are pitching comprises four ideas: greater transparency in the reporting of where campaign funds come from and how they are spent; lowering contribution limits to diminish the influence of rich donors; new, more forbidding sanctions and penalties for those who break election law, and some sort of independent body empowered to pursue election law violations; and public-assisted financing of campaigns along the lines of New York City’s system.
That fourth item was DiNapoli’s principal subject on Thursday.
“The bottom line is we need more good and honest people who want to make themselves available to serve in public office,” DiNapoli said. “The reality is the way our system is currently set up, the reliance on private donation—and big donations—is a deterrent to people getting involved. If you had a public financing system, it’d start to level the playing field.”
The proposal would emphasize small donations by providing public matching funds, on a six-to-one basis, for donations up to $250. Only individual donations would qualify for matching funds. In New York City, proponents argue, the matching funds system has made possible candidacies independent of political machines, and unbeholden to networks of developers and bankers and their lawyers, that might otherwise never have materialized. The Senate Majority Leader, Republican Dean Skelos, has tried to make hay of the cost of such a system to taxpayers, but the terrifying numbers he cites ($286 million) are demonstrably exaggerated and questionably sourced; an actual study by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute says it would $26 million to $41 million per year. Well worth it, DiNapoli argues, if it increases public participation in New York’s politics.
There is a crisis in Albany that progressives must not waste, DiNapoli said, which is true: In addition to the clutch of Assemblymembers who have fallen afoul of the law in the last couple months, 10 senators have been charged with corruption in the last four years. The numbers cited by Stalsburg of Lake Research partners are hard to spin. As presented by the Public Campaign Action Fund:
• When asked to choose between an overhaul of election laws or more modest changes, voters selected an overhaul by a 58 to 29 percent vote, with nine percent preferring to leave campaign finance laws as they are.• New Yorkers back a comprehensive package of reforms by 79 to eight percent with 83 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of independents, and 74 percent of Republicans supporting the measure. That package, as described to poll respondents, includes public matching funds, contribution limits, and disclosure of outside spending.• In districts won by Republicans in November, voters backed the proposal by a slightly higher amount, 80 percent to 10 percent.
“We need less cynicism based on the bad headlines, and more people willing to come in and fix problems, to clean things up,” said DiNapoli.
DiNapoli said all this to a relatively small crowd in the Crystal Ballroom at the Lafayette Hotel, refurbished with the help of state historic preservation tax incentives by developer Rocco Termini, a guy who knows how to work the corridors of government. And a large percentage of that crowd consisted of staff and principals of the lobbying firm headed by former Buffalo Mayor Tony Masiello, who was in the audience, and former Erie County Deputy Executive Carl Calabrese, who was there too. Also folks who know something about money in politics.