Reposted with permission from The Brennan Center. Money in Politics is a series which regularly compiles the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics — and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform.
Syracuse Post-Standard Editorializes In Favor of Small Donor Matching Funds for First Time
On Tuesday, the Syracuse Post-Standard editorialized in favor of small donor matching funds for the first time. According to the editorial, when paired with spending limits and other electoral reforms, public financing of campaigns can help address the culture of corruption in Albany. “Public campaign financing will not cure all that ails the body politic. It cannot detect a larcenous heart. But it seems a relatively cheap and sensible step toward restoring confidence that state government – the Legislature, in particular – acts in the public’s interest.” Although opponents have expressed concern about the costs, the Post-Standardpoints to the $420 million in incentives that the film and television industries received in this year’s state budget. And film and television are only one special interest group out of many that are present in Albany. The editorial notes, “If we value our democracy, we should be willing to invest in it.” Engaging more small donors and making legislators more dependent on their constituents, rather than a few wealthy special interests, offers an added layer of defense against corruption.
Campaign Finance Reform Proposals by Assembly Democrats and Senate Independent Democratic Conference
New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has unveiled a new campaign finance reform proposal. The bill, A4980B, includes a small donor matching component, where every contribution up to $250 by state residents is matched with public funds at a 6-to-1 ratio. “We cannot allow elected public service to become the exclusive domain of the wealthy and the well connected,” Speaker Silver stated. Stronger enforcement of the law and penalties for violations will be enforced by a new body, the Fair Elections Board, to be situated within the state Board of Elections. Organizations making independent political expenditures over $1,000 would have to disclose the name of the person or group behind the spending, and report all major contributors (those that donated over $1,000) to the Board of Elections. The Senate Independent Democratic Conference, headed by Senator Jeffrey Klein, criticized the proposal for failing to eliminate political party housekeeping accounts, and transfers between party committees and individual candidates.”Unless these measures are part of a more comprehensive plan to eliminate party slush funds and slash six figure contributions, we’ll be right back to where we started. Our members look forward to discussing these proposals alongside the more comprehensive plan outlined by the Independent Democratic Conference last week,” IDC Spokesman Eric Soufer stated.
The Cost of Public Financing is about $2 per New Yorker per Year
Recently, the New York State Senate Republican Conference, which is opposed to publicly funded elections, finally explained how it arrived at its inflated estimate of the cost of public financing. The method was immediately assailed by campaign finance expert Prof. Michael Malbin, who called it “little more than back of the envelope arithmetic based on incredible assumptions.” The Campaign Finance Institute has used peer-reviewed methods to conclude that the cost of public campaign funding under current proposals would be between $26 and $41 million per year. Senate Republicans’ estimate is many times higher. The Republicans’ calculation unrealistically assumes that there would be two candidates in every general election and each would earn the maximum amount of public funds. For primary elections, the GOP analysis assumes that a quarter of senators would participate in a primary, with one candidate per race receiving the maximum amount of public funds. It is important to note that under Speaker Sheldon Silver’s bill, (1) receiving public funds depends on the candidate’s ability to raise money from numerous small donors, so only donations up to $250 are matched with taxpayer dollars and that (2) candidates are limited to a maximum amount of public funds ($400,000 for Senate candidates and $200,000 for Assembly candidates in the general election race). The Senate Republicans’ assumption, that two candidates in every general election would receive the maximum amount of public funds, does not jibe with the experience of New York City, where a multiple matching funds system is already in place. Between 2001 and 2009, only 51 percent of candidates running in New York City elections received the maximum amount of public matching funds. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, under the least expensive scenario, the cost would be $1.34 per New York resident per year, while it would be $2.08 per New York resident per year for the most expensive scenario—a small price to pay for cleaner elections.
Campaign Finance Reform Can Help Crack Down on Corruption
A 2011 report by the Center for Competitive Politics has been seized upon by opponents of Fair Elections to argue that the public financing system in New York City is characterized by consistent abuse of public funds and corruption. But the facts just don’t support that characterization. Since New York City adopted public financing in 1988 it has not faced a corruption scandal on the same scale as the 1980s. The CCP report outlines 24 scandals related to New York City elections in an attempt to argue that public funding does not deter corruption. Brennan Center counsel Ian Vandewalker’s detailed investigation of the report reveals that several cases have no relationship to public financing, including one involving a state legislator who never participated in city elections. Half the cases involve allegations or investigations that yielded no criminal or election law violation. Furthermore, several others listed describe instances where candidates attempted to violate the rules of New York City’s public financing system, but were caught by the city’s enforcement agency and fined or denied public funds. Enforcement is a necessary component of any effective campaign finance reform proposal. Along with vigilant enforcement of the law, disclosure of contributions, and lower contribution limits, public financing of elections can “end the mad chase for campaign cash that starts some elected officials down the road to corruption and … make candidates dependent on ordinary voters rather than special interests.”