October 5, 2013
The Board of Elections looks to crack down on scofflaw politicians, only to find that it can’t.
To have a fair political system, enforcers need the tools to keep politicians honest.
It looked for a moment as if, against all odds and in spite of a system that seems rigged for failure, the New York State Board of Electionswould crack down on scofflaw politicians. Hurrah.
And then the moment was gone. Leave it to New York state law to thwart enforcement of New York state law.
This is absurd. It’s just one more reason why New Yorkers have to press lawmakers to overhaul the state’s campaign finance system — and do it before another election goes by. If they don’t deliver, voters should remember it on Election Day.
We’ve long faulted the Board of Elections for being a wimpy lapdog for the political establishment. So we were pleasantly surprised last month when the board said that it was going to get tough with scofflaw politicians. It said it would send letters to treasurers of campaign committees with judgments against them, and to the banks that held their funds, informing them that the committees’ assets were frozen until their fines had been settled. In other words, if they didn’t pay up, they’d be unable to operate.
Those letters were supposed to go out two weeks ago, but it turned out that only two had been mailed, to a single campaign committee treasurer and to that committee’s bank.
The board’s explanation for this less-than-sweeping crackdown: State law limits how many restraining notices a creditor can bring against a debtor or bank. The law, the board says, also only limits actions to one a year against an individual’s bank account.
So, no mass mailing. Just one unlucky politician a year.
That’s an effective system?
What will it take to persuade, pressure, cajole or embarrass the state Legislature — and in particular its most reform-resistant camp, the Senate Republican conference headed by Dean Skelos of Rockville Center — into fixing a system that seems to be more geared toward protecting politicians than keeping them honest?
The minimum reforms are not radical. Lower the sky-high donation limits for state offices, which are now above what’s allowed even for U.S. presidential candidates. Close the loopholes and back doors that allow wealthy donors and well-funded special interests to get around even those generous limits. Cap donations to political party “housekeeping accounts.” End the ability of one person to become, really, as many individuals as he wants — each able to hand out the maximum contributions — by creating limited liability corporations. Create a system of matching public financing of small campaign donations, so that candidates have a vested interest in gaining support from lots of ordinary people, rather than a few rich ones.
And put in place a real watchdog, without the kind of leash that has once again turned the Board of Elections into a joke.
We’re not going to end the culture of corruption and entitlement that plagues the Legislature as long as big money remains the key to political success, and as long as politicians believe that they can flout the law before they’re even elected.