Blair Horner: Campaign Finance Reform Hangs In the Balance In Albany

Mar 25, 2019

Last week, the debate came to a head over whether New York should create a voluntary system of public financing of elections.  The state Senate, which appears to be a supporter, held a public hearing to gather testimony on the governor’s proposed plan. 

It was clear there is strong support for establishing public financing in both the Senate and Assembly.  Whether it gets done, however, is still an open question.

New York has long been on notice about the failure of its campaign finance laws.  Thirty years ago, the final report of the Commission on Government Integrity found that New York’s campaign finance system was a “disgrace” and “embarrassingly weak.”  That Commission then scolded state leaders for failing to act, “Instead partisan, personal and vested interests have been allowed to come before larger public interests.”

In 1987, then-Governor Mario Cuomo took a first step toward cleaning up campaign financing in New York State.  Corruption scandals at the state and local government levels led to the creation of the Moreland Act Commission on Government Integrity to investigate ethics laws.  The Commission issued 22 reports on a wide range of state and local ethics practices and held 17 public hearings, including one in which the governor and attorney general testified on their fundraising practices. 

As a result of examining campaign financing practices, the Commission stated, “When running for public office requires enormous expenditures of privately raised funds, challenges to incumbents are all but limited to the most wealthy and well-connected. Moreover, huge campaign costs pressure candidates to maintain political views that do not offend big money.” 

In its recommendations, the Commission called for immediate public financing of statewide races and to assess those results before expanding to legislative races.  It viewed public financing as a “powerful tool” in curbing the power of organized and wealthy interests, to encourage electoral competition, and free candidates from at least some of their fundraising responsibilities.

Three decades later, New York City has one of the most far reaching and effective systems of financing campaigns for city office – in fact a model for the nation – and it has placed significant limits on the efforts of special interests to control government decision-making.

Yet in Albany, the work of the Commission was largely ignored.  New York State still has sky-high campaign contribution limits, still allows unlimited donations to party and legislative leadership “soft money” housekeeping accounts, still permits unfettered campaign fundraising during the legislative session, and still lacks adequate independent enforcement.

In 2013, current Governor Andrew Cuomo created his own Moreland Act Commission to respond to “an epidemic of public corruption that has infected our state.”  This Commission, like its predecessor, held public hearings, subpoenaed records, and issued a preliminary report. 

A quarter century later, the second Moreland Commission arrived at similar conclusions as its predecessor, “Our investigation – including testimony taken at public hearings – also reveals that public financing systems, like the one in place in New York City, make a real difference, empowering regular citizens, reducing the power of massive checks and special interests, and increasing the accountability of officials to those they serve.”

Those findings were also ignored.  Over the past thirty years, the scandals have not stopped.  The failure to enact meaningful reforms after the first Moreland Act Commission’s reports sent an unmistakable signal – that Albany’s “pay-to-play” system was to be kept in place.

As a result, scandals continued and have continued.  The state’s abysmal campaign finance system is inextricably linked to the state’s anemic democracy: It turns off voters by sending the message to average New Yorkers that your participation doesn’t matter.

Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers are elected to solve problems.  Corruption and a disgraceful campaign financing system that fuels that corruption is a big problem.  They’ll be making a big decision this week to continue to ignore or act upon the corruption crisis in state government.

Will Albany make history and address corruption?  If so, they must act. 

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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