Norden in Democrat & Chronicle: NY Needs Reform Now, Not Later

New York Needs Campaign Finance Reform Now, Not Later

Democrat and Chronicle

Lawrence Norden

January 9, 2013

The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption’s preliminary report confirms something most already knew. New York’s state government is inundated with big money and its toxic influence on our democracy: outright bribery, pay-to-play politics, and the silencing of average voters at the expense of those rich enough to pay for political access.

The commission’s proposed reforms, the result of months of investigation and expert testimony, include numerous common sense steps we can take immediately to stop big money from warping public policy and restore voters’ trust in their elected officials.

Most importantly, they recommend a fundamental change to our campaign finance system: lower contribution limits, so big donors can no longer use direct contributions of tens of thousands of dollars to buy access; robust and independent enforcement of campaign finance laws to ensure new rules are actually enforced; and a voluntary small donor public financing system that provides matching grants to amplify the voices of average New Yorkers who are currently shut out of the process.

This last recommendation didn’t come easily. Many of the commissioners, some of whom are self-described fiscal conservatives, were initially skeptical. But the more they learned about how these three elements of campaign finance reform worked together in New York City and Connecticut, and the minimal cost — less than a penny a day from each New Yorker — the more they came to see public financing as the best way to empower average New Yorkers while reducing the power of the big donors who dominate our current system.

Big money special interests — who have unlimited access to our elected officials — are unsurprisingly opposed to meaningful change. Unfortunately, some campaign finance reform advocates also seem to miss the forest for the trees. In his web essay Wednesday, Move-to-Amend Rochester coordinator Sam Fedele allows his fervor for a nationwide constitutional amendment “allowing all money spent to influence the people’s government to be controlled” to turn him against meaningful reform steps, which have a better chance of being implemented immediately.

It’s true that numerous New York City state legislators have been accused or convicted of corruption, as have many from upstate, including former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. But that is not proof the city’s small donor system doesn’t work. To the contrary, all of these legislators ran for office under the state system, not the city system.

Since public financing was instituted in New York City 15 years ago, corruption in city government has declined precipitously. And candidates who rely on the small donations of average constituents have won countless races against opponents backed by the kind of big donors who serve as kingmakers in Albany.

Comprehensive campaign finance reform has worked and forced officials elected in New York City government to listen to their constituents. In 2012, nearly 70 percent of contributions in state legislative races came from special interests, but individuals accounted for 93 percent of donations in city elections. This is because public matching allows small donors to have a real impact on elections, which encourages average voters to participate. At the state level, candidates have a better chance of winning if they cultivate relationships with a few elite donors capable of funneling massive funds their way.

A constitutional amendment may, indeed, be a worthy goal. But passing one would take years, if not decades, and is far from assured. Comprehensive campaign finance reform in New York, including public financing, came within one Senate vote of passing just last year. Let’s focus on what we can do now to elevate the voices of average New Yorkers instead of holding out for someone’s idea of a perfect solution.

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