March 21, 2014
As the push for comprehensive campaign finance reform in New York enters a crucial period — with a final state budget due on April 1 — the stars seem to be aligning. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is negotiating with legislative leaders on a reform package to give average New Yorkers more voice in the political system, and reduce the dominance of moneyed special interests over the state’s policy decisions. The governor and Assembly support the proposal, as do a majority of New Yorkers, including New York business leaders. Political resistance comes mainly from Republican Senate Co-Leader Dean Skelos, but as long as Jeff Klein and his Independent Democratic Conference hold firm, public financing will make it into the final budget.
As promising as these signs are, it’s easy to overestimate Albany. In order for reform to actually move forward, Cuomo must emphasize during budget negotiations that the proposal is on his “must-have” list — in other words, that it is not an optional piece to be traded away for other priorities, but a necessity. Similarly, Klein must continue serving as a counterweight to Skelos’ strident opposition in the Senate, where his Republicans don’t control enough votes to stop reform by themselves.
The reform proposal is well-conceived and comprehensive. It would implement robust, independent enforcement of campaign finance law to ensure politicians are held accountable for unethical or illegal actions. It includes stronger disclosure laws so that voters know who is funding political ads. Lower contribution limits would slow the political spending arms race. Finally, and most critically, it would create a voluntary public financing system that matches small donations. This would allow candidates to rely on their constituents when raising money, instead of depending on the big-money special interests who dominate the current election system.
Who would oppose these common sense reforms to our broken campaign finance system? Those who already hold inordinate power in Albany. Incumbent politicians who raise massive money under the current system, such as Skelos, are one barrier to change. The other is big donors themselves: special interests, wealthy contributors and big corporations who use their money to drive public policy.
Scrambling to oppose reforms that will threaten their influence, these groups have resorted to specious arguments. In this week’s Post-Standard, Brian Sampson, executive director of the lobbying group Unshackle Upstate, says thatreforms will be too costly. But as the governor’s commission to investigate public corruption pointed out, public financing would cost each New Yorker less than a penny a day. Onondaga County’s Republican District Attorney, Bill Fitzpatrick, entered his role as commission co-chair with skepticism about what public financing could achieve. After months of investigation, he concluded that compared to Albany’s current pay-to-play system, “the savings [from public financing] ultimately would be astronomical in the long run.”
Sampson cites three examples of what he claims to be “corruption” under New York City’s campaign finance system, upon which Cuomo’s proposal is based, in an attempt to link a perception of city corruption to Cuomo’s reform proposal. In fact, violations of campaign finance law under the New York City system have been exceedingly rare in the last two decades. Strong independent enforcement, like that in Cuomo’s reform package, has imposed swift penalties on violators, recouping more than $400,000 in funds from candidates who didn’t play by the rules. Contrast this with the corruption in Albany’s “anything goes” campaign finance system, where violations are routine, and dozens of legislators, including three of the last five Senate Majority leaders, have been arrested or convicted of corruption.
Certainly, public financing won’t be a silver bullet that eliminates all corruption. What it will do, and has done in New York City and Connecticut, is give candidates an incentive to fundraise from a mass of small donors instead of a few big ones. Once those candidates get into office, they’ll operate with those average constituents’ interests at heart.
Under the current system, a candidate can’t dream of being elected without wooing the wealthy donors, corporations and special interests that Unshackle Upstate represents. Once in office, the best way for that candidate to ensure re-election is to push policies that protect their donors’ interests. This is the biggest problem with today’s system: public policy that affects all New Yorkers is dictated by those who can afford to buy political access.
What emerges on April 1 from the budget negotiations will say a great deal about how serious Gov. Cuomo, Sen. Klein, Speaker Silver, and our other legislators are about enacting real reform to our state’s broken campaign finance system. They need to know that New Yorkers will accept nothing less.
Lawrence Norden is deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.