New York Daily News
April 16, 2012
No state capital cries out for a campaign finance crackdown more desperately than New York’s.
With sky-high contribution limits, yawning loopholes, anything-goes spending rules and laughable enforcement, it’s the wild west of political cash.
Albany’s hogs in you-know-what love it — or they would have ended the gorging dozens of scandals ago.
Now, a group of would-be reformers is taking up the cause of partial public financing of state elections, following a model that has worked reasonably well in New York City since 1988.
Good government organizations have pounded their heads against this wall for years. This group could be different in that it may have some money to put behind a campaign. But, like lambs to the slaughter it may very well go.
The Legislature, representing the monied interests that hold sway in Albany — and Democratic and Republican power players — is expert at feigning change while leaving things as they are.
Consider how it bested even Gov. Cuomo in the drawing of some of the most hyperpartisan, gerrymandered district lines New York has ever seen. Consider the contortions it forced Cuomo into as the price for enacting ethics enforcement so complicated that it defies understanding.
Remember, too, that no one has ever figured out how to squeeze money out of politics — and that the Supreme Court has essentially declared that it’s not worth trying.
That said, New York is so off-the-charts corrupt that cleanup efforts — smart efforts — are welcome. In that vein, as a first order of business, the Don Quixotes should drop the idea of trying to buy cleaner government by giving politicians tax money for their campaigns.
Here’s what they should focus on instead:
Slashing New York’s ridiculously high contribution limits, which let candidates for statewide office take up to $60,800 from a single donor. That’s 12 times the cap for presidential hopefuls.
Eliminating the gigantic soft-money loophole known as housekeeping accounts — through which parties can raise unlimited quantities of special-interest cash and keep it secret until after Election Day.
Stopping pols from treating campaign kitties as personal slush funds. Using lobbyist contributions to make car payments is legalized bribery.
Replacing the comically ineffective Board of Elections — which audits and investigates nothing — with a serious campaign finance cop.
Only with those steps credibly accomplished could you begin to imagine trusting state lawmakers with tax dollars to finance their TV spots and lawn signs.
Even then, the undertaking would demand a watchdog powerhouse the likes of which Albany has never seen. It would be tasked with doling out public funds to candidates in 212 legislative races, three statewide contests and countless party primaries, plus auditing every transaction to keep the pols honest and coming down hard on those who break the rules — all while maintaining unquestioned integrity and independence.
The challenge would dwarf the job of the city’s Campaign Finance Board — which is a diligent enforcer and still has pols trying to game the system.
Will Albany lawmakers ever achieve the credibility necessary to pull off public campaign financing? Don’t hold your breath.