Blair Horner: Don't Stop Reforming

Dec 24, 2018

New York considers itself “progressive,” which in many ways is true.  The state’s Constitution preserves vast swaths of the Adirondack and Catskill mountain regions, protect workers, mandates help for the needy, guarantees free public education, among other measures.  However, in one area New York is anything but progressive: its democracy.

Low voter participation rates, difficulties in registering to vote, inadequate enforcement of ethics laws, and a “disgraceful” system of campaign finance have deprived New Yorkers of the best elements of a functioning democracy found elsewhere in America.

Over the many years of complaints about New York’s democracy, few reforms have been enacted due to partisan differences; Republicans and Democrats simply could not agree how to fix what ails Albany.

That all could change in 2019 with one party control of the executive and legislative branches.  Last week, Governor Cuomo laid out early on what he was hoping to get out of the 2019 legislative session.  In a speech on his goals for the first 100 days, the governor called for across-the-board actions to tackle climate change, ensure continued health insurance coverage, broader reproductive rights protections for women, and to take on the democracy challenges that face the state.

In his speech, the governor called for new voting reforms, such as enacting automatic voter registration and early voting, and to make it easier to vote by mail. He also called for campaign finance changes, such as closing the notorious loophole that allows businesses organized as Limited Liability Companies – known as “LLCs” - to have much higher campaign finance limits than other businesses and to ban corporate donations altogether.

The governor also called for a campaign financing change that would be most impactful: the establishment of a voluntary system of public financing.  In this area, the governor did not have to look far for a model.  The City of New York has had a system for three decades that is viewed by reformers as the best in the nation at allowing candidates to run for office without having to rely on powerful special interests.  New York City’s system is praised because it encourages candidates to engage with rank-and-file voters instead of dialing for dollars from the wealthy and powerful.

Essentially, the City’s system allows candidates to choose to participate in the program that allows for $6 in clean public resources for every $1 raised in small private contributions, no more than $175.  (Those limits will increase during upcoming elections.)  Thus, candidates are required to search out small donors and rely far less on big ones.  A system that relies on a large number of small donors instead of a small number of large donors (those usually with business before the government) is a system that is far less prone to corruption,

Coincidentally, a report on this very topic came out last week from a non-partisan national think-tank.  The Campaign Finance Institute – which studies the nation’s best practices in campaign finance – released a report on the projected impacts if New York State embraced the City’s system. 

The Institute found that lowering the contribution limits, closing the LLC loophole, and instituting a system of matching funds, would in fact substantially increase the importance of small donors to candidates across the board while decreasing their dependence on large donors.  

It also found that the cost of the proposed system would be modest – less than one penny per day for each New Yorker over the course of four years.                                                             

Will that package solve the crisis of corruption in Albany?  Sadly, no.  The benefits of a voluntary system of public financing would be limited due to the Citizens United case, which allows unlimited spending by mega-donors to influence elections.  But the New York City system offers clear choices since it allows candidates the option of making a run for office without owing fealty to real estate developers, bankers, and other well-organized interests.  Instead, those candidates have be appeal to average voters to obtain small contributions that get turbo-charged through its public financing matching system.

Of course, more needs to be done, such as independent oversight of how the state awards government contracts and independent oversight of ethics.  After all, even the best laws fall short if they are not adequately enforced.

Whether New York acts could not only have an impact in the state, but nationally as well.  Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s now-infamous Citizens United decision in 2010, only localities have embraced campaign finance reforms similar to those found in New York City.  No state has adopted and successfully implemented a public financing system for gubernatorial and legislative elections since Connecticut in 2006.

If New York acts, it would dramatically improve our campaign finance system and send a powerful signal to the nation that despite court cases that have increased the risk of corruption, state governments can act to establish better ways to run for office.  That’s an investment in democracy New York should make.

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

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