Unshackle Report Reinforces the Corrupt Status Quo

November 25, 2013

In its publication, Money for Nothing, Unshackle Upstate rails against comprehensive campaign finance reform, including the public financing of elections. The paper is an attempt to breathe new life into arguments that have been made and refuted, repeatedly. Most remarkably, through this document, Unshackle essentially advocates keeping the status quo, proposing only minor changes that will not end the culture of corruption in Albany.

The following is a response to the principal claims made in the document:

  • The paper argues that public financing is “a recipe for more corruption.”
    • The Brennan Center refuted this claim in April. Comprehensive campaign finance reform, including public financing, has fundamentally changed the political cultures in both Connecticut and New York City since they were adopted. All systems have bad apples, and New York City and Connecticut are no exceptions, but the level of corruption has been dramatically altered.
       
  • Unshackle makes the unfounded assertion that a public financing law would violate a provision of the New York Constitution that prevents state money from being used for a “private undertaking.”
    • This Brennan Center also recently debunked this tenuous argument. The use of state money for campaigns for public office clearly is designed to further the public interest. For good reason, this argument has never been made by any reform opponent in their various challenges to New York City’s public financing program over the past 24 years. Nor has anyone successfully used similar provisions in other state constitutions to challenge public financing systems in those states.
       
  • The document cites a poll it claims shows majority opposition to public financing.
    • This poll is an outlier, and its result probably has more to do with the wording of the question than anything else. A different poll conducted a month later found that 74 percent of likely New York voters support a campaign finance reform proposal that includes public matching funds for small donations. This is consistent with the vast majority of polls (see others here and here) taken on this question, and a 2012 poll showed that 72 percent of New York business leaders support a public matching system for state elections.
       
  • Unshackle argues that the cost of public financing is too high, citing partisan and unsubstantiated estimates.
    • study by the non-partisan and highly respected Campaign Finance Institute using peer reviewed methodology, found that the program would cost each New Yorker about two dollars per year.
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  • Unshackle worries that public financing would create an “uneven playing field.”
    • But public financing does just the opposite. Studies show that public financing consistently produces more competition — something desperately needed, in New York, where legislators are more likely to die in office or resign under ethics investigation than they are to lose in a general election.

There is nothing new in these false assertions. There is no doubt that many remain vested in maintaining the status quo: special interests, such as developers that receive retroactive tax breaks for already completed projects; incumbents who benefit from large donations; and lobbyists who use those donations to enrich their clients at the expense of the rest of the state.

Several public hearings of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption have demonstrated what most New Yorkers already know: The current campaign finance system is corrupt, and public campaign financing is the best hope for fundamentally changing it.

To speak with the Brennan Center please contact Naren Daniel at naren.daniel@nyu.edu or 646-292-8381.

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