Peter Zimroth, Lance Liebman and Gerald F. Mollen
May 4, 2014
As usual, New York State budget season created controversy: Gov. Cuomo shut down the Moreland Commission, which he had created nine months earlier to investigate Albany’s corrupt culture and figure out how to fix it.
That decision attracted heat in no small part because the commission’s top idea — comprehensive campaign finance reform, including public financing of elections — was left out when the governor and legislative leaders made their final budget deal.
Here is what many are missing in the hair-pulling over what happened: There are still two months in the legislative session. Even without Moreland, the governor and Legislature can pass campaign reform. And they must.
Moreland, on which we served, was created after a series of scandals rocked Albany. But there is a systemic problem in Albany that goes beyond individual criminality. New York has a pay-to-play culture, enabled by a campaign finance system that encourages big donors to set the legislative agenda.
In one of Moreland’s investigations, a trade association held a fundraiser for the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, urging its members to contribute $10,000 to attend. Later, the association sent a similar solicitation to the Republican committee.
Why? Here is what they told donors:
“Our future ability to adopt favorable legislation, stop terrible legislation or modify legislation to limit the pain to our industry is directly tied to our continued positive relationship with all the leaders in Albany. Failure to do so will seriously impact our ability to serve you and our industry.”
Lawmakers go to Albany to do good for their community. But once they get elected, they need to raise loads of money to stay in office. Spending their time with wealthy donors is the most efficient way to do that.
The biggest donors often have a reason for their largesse: They want a bill passed or blocked, and access to ensure that public policy reflects their goals. In recent decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has said this may not be illegal. But there is no question it breeds cynicism and undermines public trust in our democracy.
A former chief lawyer for New York City under Mayor Giuliani put it this way: “Elected officials know where their money is coming from and that it must keep coming if they are to stay in office.”
Comprehensive campaign finance reform can change how our government works by changing incentives. A politician who joins a small-donor public financing system agrees to lower contribution limits — she can no longer take the big checks from lobbyists and special interests. In exchange, small donations from New York citizens are matched with public funds, so it makes sense for politicians to spend time with constituents who will write $50 or $100 checks, but could never provide the $10,000 contributions that are currently the currency of Albany.
Public funding of campaigns has worked in New York City since the late 1980s. For city elections, small donations — up to $175 — are matched and multiplied by public funds so that a contribution of $175 results in $1050 of campaign funds for the candidate. This leverages the power of ordinary citizens and thereby reduces the influence of large donors and special interests.
Initiating this system will cost some taxpayer money. But it will cost taxpayers substantially more over the long run if we continue to allow large contributors to exercise such outsized influence in choosing our elected leaders.
Moreland may be gone. But we should not give up on our fight to clean up government and make it more responsive to the needs of the people.
Zimroth, Liebman and Mollen are former members of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. Zimroth is senior counsel at Arnold & Porter LLP. Liebman is William S. Beinecke Professor of Law and former Dean of Columbia Law School. Mollen is the district attorney for Broome County, NY.