Last week, New York may have taken a step toward significantly changing the way elections are financed. Currently, candidates for state office in New York – like much of the rest of the nation – rely on private contributions to fuel their campaigns. Not surprisingly, many of those who give those contributions are expecting that their donations will help their interests – be they personal or occupational – after the candidate wins elective office.
New York law makes it easy to pull in donations from those with deep pockets; the state has the highest 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.
For those seeking – or holding – elective office, hitting up those who are most interested in contributing makes good economic – and campaign – sense. Under state law, making one phone call to a possible $10,000 contributor is a more efficient approach than making 100 calls to potential $100 contributors.
While it is clearly more efficient, it raises the risk of corruption. A big campaign donor with an economic interest before the state is expecting an elected official to be responsive, or that donor may contribute to a challenger.
And New Yorkers have seen the corruption that has resulted from a campaign financing system that relies on a relatively small number of big contributors.
What can be done to reduce that risk? 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, or to reduce the risk of the corruption that stems from some of those relationships.
There are two approaches, however, that can reduce those risks and meet constitutional muster. First, the state can dramatically restrict the ability to make campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts or from professional lobbyists seeking government action. Roughly half the nation has some form of “pay-to-play” limitations; 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 resulting 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. New York City’s system was approved overwhelmingly by voters as part of a city government overhaul after a series of scandals and it’s been steadily improved over more than 25 years.
Which brings us to last week. As part of the budget agreement last March, the governor and state lawmakers agreed to establish a commission that would be charged with setting up a voluntary system of public financing, thus setting up an alternative to the private contribution system.
The budget was approved on March 31st and the commission was charged with establishing the public financing system by December 1st of this year, giving the commission eight months to do its work.
In all-too-frequent Albany fashion, the governor and the legislative leaders failed to choose the commission members until last week, frittering away more than three months of the eight months available to the commission.
The nine members now have to hit the ground running in order to set up the public financing system. As mentioned earlier, they don’t have far to look for a model of how it is to be done (see New York City’s program, which is three decades old).
But it must do its work in an open and transparent way, not simply follow the dictates of Albany’s top political leaders.
Nevertheless, it is a start. And once their work is concluded, the commission members may have offered candidates a clear alternative to the state’s “pay-to-play” campaign financing system. An alternative that relies on clean public resources and one that relies on the support of a large number of small contributors. A system that reduces the risk of corruption and is far more likely to engage voters of average economic means. Last week was an important step. Now the commission must quickly get to work to come up with a proposal and engage the public. For New York’s ailing democracy, there’s not a moment more to waste.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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