Benjamin in The Journal News: For $2.08 We Can Clean Albany [Op-Ed]

Op-ed: For just $2.08, you can help to clean up Albany

The Journal News

Gerald Benjamin

May 31, 2013

Check the Web. You can have one of these for $2.08: a skein of Australian Dinky-Dyes stranded cotton; a 12-pack of Vietnamese instant noodles; a package of Glade air freshener; a Bogarden Hellkite magic card; a set of plastic gears for a model helicopter; four pounds of pure cane sugar; or a box of Kellogg’s multi-grain bars.

Or maybe you’ll settle for another option: buying fair, competitive elections in New York state for your money.

Two dollars and eight cents. That’s what Michael Malbin, head of the Campaign Finance Institute and a leading national expert on state and local campaign finance, told state senators at a recent hearing that it might cost each New Yorker each year to finance state elections through a hybrid public/private system. Professor Malbin favors a matching fund approach modeled on that of New York City, one that provides incentives for candidates to gather support from small donors by matching contributions up to $250 on a 6-to-1 basis. Under this approach the influence of big money is minimized not only through the use of public funds, but by building the number of contributors and the proportion they provide of the dollars needed to cover campaign costs.

Republican Senate opponents to public/private financing say that Malbin massively underestimates its cost, but they present no credible basis for their inflated alternative projections. They say scarce state resources should not be used to pay for elections, when there are so many other underfunded state needs. But they don’t say how much state money is misdirected and wasted now as a result of our virtually unregulated big-donor-dominated campaign finance practices.

These are not just dollars from big business. Would localities still be required by the Wicks Law to waste tens of millions yearly on public construction contracts if big labor money in state elections was limited?

Opponents also argue that public/private financing of elections is tantamount to requiring citizens to pay for careers of politicians with whom they do not agree, and many of whom are corrupt. These are legislators saying this, seeking to exploit public disgust with … the legislature. The truth is that the current system indebts individual politicians to big contributors with a stake in specific public policy choices. Public/private financing advances no particular interest over any other and spreads the cost over all of us. It supports no particular person or view, but a fairer, more competitive system.

Finally, critics say that the New York City campaign finance system, upon which reform proposals for the state are modeled, is flawed: It includes some perverse incentives and corruption risks. And they are right; the city’s approach has not proved perfect. We should learn from experience. But the overall lesson of experience is that public/private financing on the NYC model is light-years better than what we have now at the state level, if our goal is fair and clean elections.

My dad had a liquor store in Manhattan. He said he liked owning his own business. He had to pay all the overhead, but no one told him what to do. We can choose to take ownership of our troubled state political system by each paying our share toward democracy’s overhead. Or we can outsource democracy, and let the big money interests continue to call the shots.

I look out my office window every day at the American flag, flying proudly at the entrance of our college. Tragically, it has too often recently been at half-mast, in memory of valiant New Yorkers who have died abroad in combat. Ask yourself this: How can we put the best of our youth at risk of paying the ultimate price to protect our way of life, and see some of them pay it, and then resist paying $2.08 apiece a year to honor their sacrifice by assuring that our democracy works fairly?

Albany has a habit of finding excuses for keeping things as they are. The governor and legislature must act now to bring cleaner and fairer elections to New York.

The writer is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, SUNY New Paltz.

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