January 5, 2014
The curtain rises Wednesday on another legislative session, which kicks off with Gov.Andrew Cuomo‘s fourth State of the State address. Here’s a look at one of the issues that is likely to define this year in New York politics:
For many New Yorkers, the concept of publicly funded campaigns presents a choice between the lesser of two evils: steering their tax dollars to pay for maddening robocalls and endless political mail, or accepting a political system that seems to incentivize the sort of corruption that makes even the most jaded grifter blush.
Of course, whether New York adopts some kind of public campaign finance system isn’t up to most New Yorkers — not directly, anyway.
That decision will fall largely to the power brokers in the state Legislature, a body so riven with scandal in recent years that some public finance advocates see movement on the question as all but inevitable in the coming months.
“Our money is being wasted right now because of the system that we have,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at New York University Law School’sBrennan Center for Justice. “It demonstrates how resources are being wasted by having our policy and our policy decisions focus on the preferences of those who are giving big donations. … There’s already a very big cost in not doing this and not making sure that the average New Yorker has more of a say in how policy is done in New York.”
Last spring, Gov. Andrew Cuomo backed such a system, modeled after the one already in place in New York City. While it has support in the Assembly, the concept is still two votes shy of the 32 members needed to secure passage in the Senate — if, that is, the legislation could overcome a Republican blockade and make it to the floor.
The push for public financing was at once a centerpiece and the most divisive recommendation in the preliminary report issued a month ago by Cuomo’s anti-corruption Moreland Commission.
With seven of its 25 members dissenting, the panel endorsed a system in the image of the New York City model, which allows candidates who opt into the public finance system and accept spending limits the opportunity to collect $6 in matching public money for every dollar they raise in small, private donations.
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, citing work by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institutethink tank, has said such a plan for statewide offices would cost taxpayers between $25 million and $40 million annually, but Senate Republicans contend the bill would be closer to $200 million per election cycle.
The idea is to dull the influence of large contributors by rewarding politicians for building a broad base of public support by soliciting donations from individuals of more modest means.
Cuomo empaneled the Moreland Commission after state lawmakers refused to act on a package of ethics reforms he introduced at the end of last year’s legislative session, during which three lawmakers were hit with corruption charges and another lawmaker snared in a separate alleged scheme was outed as having worn a wire for federal investigators.
Half the states in the union already have some form of public campaign finance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And while the details of those systems vary greatly, advocates here point to the New York City model because they say it’s already been shown to work in the state for more than two decades.
But opponents of the concept contend the arguments for it are wrong on every level — that it doesn’t help fight corruption but simply steers public money to politicians who have already proved themselves untrustworthy of receiving it.
Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat who quit the chamber in May in the wake of a damaging ethics report that accused him of serial sexual harassment, went on to run a losing race for New York City Council — a race in which he received nearly $88,000 in matching public campaign money.
“That’s horrible,” Sampson said. “I don’t understand how anybody in the world would say that’s OK.”
Sampson also noted that all three of the lawmakers charged with corruption last year (Assemblyman Eric Stevenson and state Sens. John Sampson and Malcolm Smith) represent New York City, which he says undercuts the narrative that the city’s public finance system somehow extinguished the culture of graft that led to its creation in 1988.
“If you look at where we continue to see the bulk of corruption, it’s coming from the New York City system,” Sampson said. “You’ll never prevent bad people from getting into office. Using taxpayer dollars to open that door for them? That’s tough.”
Karen Scharff, executive director of the progressive reform group Citizen Action, countered Sampson by arguing that the Lopez case is actually evidence of the system working: He was, after all, defeated in part because his opponent had access to public financing.
Sampson supports empowering the state Board of Elections, derided as largely toothless by the Moreland Commission, to investigate violations of existing campaign finance law. Advocates, too, acknowledge that any public financing system would need to come with a robust and independent enforcement arm to police abuse.
Unlike last year, when Cuomo sent his reforms to the Legislature during the closing days of business, the Democratic governor will enter this year having spent six months on the bully pulpit publicly assailing lawmakers for recurring ethics scandals and battles with the Moreland Commission — leverage that good government advocates say they hope will make the difference in an election year.
“I don’t think legislators want to face the voters asking, ‘What did you do about corruption?’ and the answer is ‘Nothing,'” Scharff said.