Blair Horner: Changing Albany's Pay-To-Play Culture? Maybe.

May 13, 2019

In 1966, then-Speaker of the California Assembly Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh aptly observed “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”  If so, in Albany, our elected officials are extremely well-nourished.  New York law makes it easy to pull in donations from those with deep pockets; the state has the largest campaign contribution limits (of any state that has limits) in the nation.  Under state law, one can make a legal campaign contribution of over $115,000 to a political party and can donate nearly $70,000 to candidates for governor.

Who writes those checks?  The wealthy and those who have business before the government.

Thus, elected officials are doing all they can to legally raise big bucks.  They know that the bigger the campaign warchest, the less likely they will face a formidable electoral opponent. 

And it’s easy to do.  One way is by holding campaign fundraisers for lobbyists while legislation is under consideration.  For example, through the end of March, New York’s elected officials had held 125 campaign fundraisers during the legislative session, with a peak frenzy during the time the state’s $175 billion budget was in negotiations. 

It’s a pretty brazen practice: elected officials hitting up lobbyists for campaign contributions while they decide how to spend $175 billion in public monies.  Yet, the money is so easy to get, it’s worth the embarrassment – and it’s legal under New York law.

And getting that money works.  A review of campaign filings for the 2018 election shows that of the 213 legislative winners, at least 130 of them outfundraised their opponents by at least 10-to-1.

Statewide officeholders also vastly outfundraised their challengers.  And the fundraising rush for more campaign dollars has not stopped.

As mentioned, lawmakers are holding campaign fundraisers at a breakneck pace and the governor is too.  According to his most recent campaign filing in January, the governor had over $4 million in the bank for a possible run for a fourth term and he is holding more fundraisers. 

Just before the budget was done, the governor held a fundraiser in Manhattan with donations at $25,000 per couple. 

He is reportedly holding more over the next couple of months.  This week his campaign will host donors at a Yankees game, charging $10,000 for the game.  Earlier this month he held a fundraiser at another Yankees game.  The governor will hold a small dollar donor event in New York City on May 21, then a fundraiser in June on Long Island, with a donation request of $5,000 per head, and one more at Lincoln Center, where he will be joined by actor Robert DeNiro. 

Clearly, a huge warchest will make any electoral challenger think twice before taking on the governor, or any elected official sitting on a stack of campaign cash.

But the benefits of aggressive campaign fundraising do not stop with preparing for a reelection bid – raising money for others has its own benefits. 

Governor Cuomo has reportedly decided to push his donors to not only build his own campaign coffers, but to help finance the Presidential effort of former Vice President Joe Biden.

If he does so, the governor would be following in the path set by former New York Governor George Pataki who helped raise $9.5 million for former President George W. Bush’s reelection.  Under federal law, bundling campaign contributions to Presidential candidates is legal and being the governor of a state that is home to incredibly rich people gives them a powerful tool to ingratiate themselves to possible future Presidents.

Legal is not necessarily good.  Yet, under various U.S. Supreme Court decisions, there isn’t too much that can be done to reduce the influence of the wealthy and powerful, as well as reduce the risk of the corruption that stems from some of those relationships.

There are two approaches, however, that can reduce the risks.  First, the state can dramatically restrict the ability to make campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts or lobbyists seeking favors.  Roughly half of the nation has some form of this limitation, New York should too.

Second, the state should do all it can to remake its campaign finance system from one that relies on a small number of large donors – and the higher risks of corruption – to one that relies on a large number of small donors.  New York should drastically reduce the size of its legal campaign contributions and establish a voluntary system of public financing.  A public financing system typically allows for a public match for small contributions, in New York City, for example, every $1 raised in small contributions is matched with an $8 donation in public resources.

Until then, state public policies will reflect the wishes of a wealthy elite, while the rest of us live with the consequences.

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

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