New York State’s campaign financing system has been notorious – sky-high contributions that allow the wealthy and powerful to legally donate over $100,000; ineffective enforcement; loopholes galore and inadequate disclosures. The result? Scandals. Most recently the convictions of big donors and top-ranking state officials in an incredible scheme that rigged government contracts for big campaign donors.
The lousy system is not something new – for decades, blue ribbon commissions, federal prosecutors, and experts have roundly criticized New York’s campaign financing practices and its anemic laws.
And for decades Governors and state lawmakers have pledged to fix the system, only to complain that partisan gridlock blocked necessary reforms.
New York City’s experience, on the other hand, was different. In the 1980s, it too experienced stunning levels of corruption. But a politically unified city government coupled with public outrage yielded the creation of a system of public financing that shifted the emphasis away from raising money from special interests who write big checks to getting small donations that are amplified by public matching funds. New York City’s program is now considered a model for the nation.
After the 2018 election, Democrats took firm control of the state government when they won a working majority of seats in the state senate. Governor Cuomo had regularly advanced legislation to create a voluntary system of public financing modeled on the New York City program. The new Democratic Senate majority had also pledged to support establishing a New York City-style system. The Assembly had approved legislation creating a New York City-style system regularly for years since the 1980s. Reform seemed like a done deal.
But something happened. Democrats’ great enthusiasm for public financing evaporated during the first half of the legislative session. Eventually, instead of directly voting to adopt a New York City-style system, the governor and the legislative leaders established a commission empowered to create a public financing system in New York State. The legislation was approved at the end of March and this new Commission was charged with releasing its plan by December 1st of this year, giving the group only eight months to get its work completed.
But the games continued. The leaders made no appointments to the commission until early July, thus cutting the timetable to a mere five months. The commission had no staff, few resources and couldn’t pull off its first meeting until late August.
Now the timetable was cut to 3 months.
The commission then wasted its time publicly debating whether to curtail the involvement of minor parties in elections. The commission is now down to a few precious weeks to get its monumental work completed.
You would think that under the circumstances the Commission would focus on a program that has had a three-decade track record of success. A program that already exists in New York State. The commission could then focus on how best to scale it up to a statewide program.
But you would be wrong.
Instead, the commission seems to want to develop a system very different from New York City’s. At its most recent meeting, the commission approved an outline of a program that would diverge from the New York City model by prohibiting public financing matches for out-of-district. Instead, in-district contributions would be matched up to $250 according to a tier of ratios: the first $50 at 12:1, the next $100 at 9:1, and the next $100 at 8:1.
This untried, complicated system is being cooked up with less than three weeks to go. It almost seems like they are doing all they can to develop a program too flawed to succeed.
This has happened before. In 2014, the governor rushed through a campaign financing change that covered only the Comptroller’s race. The program was so flawed that the Comptroller did not choose to participate and his opponent couldn’t meet the complicated standards.
Why is the commission operating this way? Since so much of what they do is done in secret, it’s hard to know. But it’s safe to say that the governor and the legislative leaders are comfortable with the ways things are going.
New Yorkers, on the other hand, should not be. New York’s corrupt campaign financing system needs drastic change. If the unelected commission fails to make it happen, New Yorkers should look to the actions of the governor and the legislature before, during, and after the commission acts. It is their leadership that should be under scrutiny.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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