Michael Brune and Marc Weiss
March 13, 2014
People across New York understand that the state legislature in Albany operates according to one simple rule: pay-to-play. The evidence is clear: special interests that get their priorities passed into law are the same ones that fork over campaign contributions. That situation gives New York’s environment the short end of the stick.
Last session, bills that support clean solar energy, cut carbon pollution and protect children from hazardous chemicals died in Albany. None of them had the backing of major campaign donors and none were passed by the legislature.
Endangered species don’t have big checkbooks. Clean air doesn’t have a political action committee. Clean drinking water can’t make contributions to candidates. And nonprofit organizations working to protect the environment can’t match the contributing power of deep-pocketed real estate developers or gas companies.
Everyone who cares about clean air and water should applaud Gov. Andrew Cuomo for proposing a policy that would return political power to the people. Cuomo has proposed the public financing of elections through the 2014-15 budget. If the legislature approves this initiative, small-dollar contributions will be matched by public funding, leveling the playing field for candidates who stand with the people and not the polluters.
This important change would lower the volume on the bullhorn that big-money campaign donors use to drown out everyone else and amplify the voices of everyday New Yorkers.
Coupled with tighter contribution limits and tough enforcement, Gov. Cuomo’s proposal would end the policies that make “pay-to-play” the way that business is done in Albany.
A bill that would create a similar system for federal elections has been introduced in Congress and is backed by most of the New York congressional delegation as well as more than 100 cosponsors. This groundswell of support is being driven by nationwide momentum in favor of fair elections and public financing: public polling shows bipartisan agreement that our electoral system is being undermined by the uncontrolled influx of private money.
Reform is never easy. Ironically, the power imbalances that make public financing so necessary also make it that much harder to enact. But where we have momentum to make reforms, we must seize the opportunity.
Today, our elected officials are forced to spend time begging big donors for money — time that could be spent fighting for their constituents. Those big donors get undue sway over the legislative process and our government’s priorities are distorted. Although this constant trading of money for consideration is only sometimes illegal, it’s always corrosive to our democracy. Inevitably, it frustrates any attempt to discuss a piece of legislation on its merits.
We’ve seen too many examples of this in New York.
The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption found multiple instances of lobbyists openly telling their clients about the link between donations and legislation. One trade association told its members to donate $10,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee as a way to ensure a “positive relationship with all the leaders in Albany” so that they would “adopt favorable legislation” (“The Commission to Investigate Public Corruption: Preliminary Report”).
Under this system, getting a pro-environment bill through the state legislature is like pushing a boulder up a mountain in a snowstorm with a pack of wolves nipping at your heels. That’s because clean air and clean water advocates don’t have the resources to get legislators to pay attention.
With fair elections and public financing, elected officials would be more likely to make decisions based on what’s best for New York rather than what their biggest donors want. We could prioritize the purity of our drinking water over campaign contributions from oil companies. We could create a Green Jobs Innovation Fund to facilitate retrofitting office buildings and homes — creating jobs and reducing energy costs. We could cancel tax breaks for companies that pollute our waterways and offer them to environmentally responsible landowners.
Under the current system, good legislation is doomed unless it is backed by big donations. That’s no way to run a democracy. Governor Cuomo has proposed to change that. It’s time to get it done.
Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club. Marc Weiss is a member of the Sierra Club Foundation board and New York Leadership for Accountable Government.