Even though the New York Senate is a cesspool of corruption, Majority Co-Leader Dean Skelos is fighting against reform. Perhaps he’d like to keep the cesspool just the way it is?
In the last seven years, 32 state elected officials have been have been convicted, censured, or otherwise accused of wrongdoing. The corruption has been particularly concentrated in the Senate. In less than five years, four legislative leaders and 10 senators in total have been convicted or charged with corruption. That’s in a body of just 63 senators!
The scandals have touched Democrats and Republicans, upstate and down. But make no mistake, it is the Senate Republicans who are currently the biggest impediment to systemic reform in Albany.
Dean Skelos is so worried about the ever-more-insistent calls for reform that yesterday he wrote an op-ed that brings together all of opponents’ attacks on public financing, no matter how much they stretch the truth. In between the misleading bluster and hyperbole, he makes three main claims that are easily debunked.
Claim Number 1: Business Opposes Reform
Skelos argues that the state’s “real-world job creators” oppose reform. This is demonstrably false. In fact, business leaders in New York overwhelmingly support comprehensive campaign finance reform that includes small donor public financing.
In the last few months, many of these business leaders have been a vital part of the chorus of voices in favor of campaign finance reform. Of course, none of them were invited to speak at the “public” hearing Republicans held to defend the status quo in Albany last week. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In April, Jerome Kohlberg penned an op-ed in Crain’s New York Business arguing strongly for reform, and in March, the Committee for Economic Development issued a report explaining the benefits of New York City’s public funding program. New York business leaders have organized a bipartisan group demanding comprehensive reform, NY LEAD. Its members include Empire State notables and job creators like Cynthia DiBartolo, chair of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, Barry Diller, Dan Neidich, David Rockefeller, Ralph Schlosstein, and many, many more.
These business leaders recognize that comprehensive campaign finance reform will create greater participation by all New Yorkers, more competition for incumbents, and reduce the influence of special interest money.
Perhaps Dean Skelos recognizes this too?
Claim Number 2: Reform will cost $286 million per year
Despite a carefully reasoned estimate by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute showing public funding would cost between $26 and $41 million per year, based on campaign data from 2010 and 2012, Skelos incredibly claims that it will cost $286 million next year alone. He offers no explanation as to where he gets this number from. Just last month, his own Republican conference touted an estimate of $222 million every two years, so Skelos must believe the cost has somehow more than doubled in the last few weeks. The Republican conference estimate is based on a set of wildly unrealistic assumptions without any relation to recent history and has been completely debunked.
Claim Number 3: New York City’s reformed campaign finance system has led to more corruption
Skelos tries to distort the record of New York City’s public financing system, saying that “dozens” of candidates have abused the system. In reality, the agency that runs the city system is a highly effective enforcer. The handful of candidates who have tried to game the system have been caught by sharp-eyed staff at the Campaign Finance Board, and denied public funds. In fact, the Campaign Finance Board enforces all of the city’s campaign finance laws, not only the public funding rules. We desperately need this kind of effective enforcement at the state level, where there were more than 100,000 violations of campaign finance laws last year, and state officials did little more than send warning letters.
Far from fueling corruption, public campaign funding has been an essential part of government ethics reform in New York City and Connecticut, both of which enacted public financing after devastating corruption scandals. Since enacting its public financing system, New York City has seen nothing like the cancerous corruption crisis of the 1980s, in which party bosses controlled entire agencies rife with extortion and bribery. And the four years after Connecticut’s reforms were implemented have seen the lowest number of federal corruption convictions on record.
In his op-ed, Skelos also repeats the ridiculous argument that Malcolm Smith was trying to get public campaign funds when he allegedly attempted to bribe his way onto the Republican ballot line for mayor of New York City. While no one except Smith knows exactly what the senator was thinking, he would have been eligible for public funds as a Democratic candidate, so it makes no sense that public campaign funding was the impetus for bribing Republicans.
At a closed-door meeting with his conference last week, Skelos discouraged senators from continuing to accept campaign donations from gambling interests, reportedly saying, “People are watching very closely.” If Skelos thinks it’s enough to try to hide the influence of special interest money for a little while during the current media focus on scandal, he is badly mistaken. New Yorkers demand comprehensive reform, and they are indeed watching very closely to see who supports reform and who works to protect the corrupting system.
Some incumbents and special interests like Albany just the way it is, a place where giving big money to legislators gets big results in terms of access, influence, and sweetheart deals. Comprehensive campaign finance reform, including public financing, will create a system where regular New Yorkers can meaningfully compete with the influence of big money. It will make elections more competitive by allowing quality candidates without relationships to big donors to run, giving voters more choice. Right now, special interests and shady characters willing to pay to play speak louder than everyone else. Reform will lift all our voices so that we’re not drowned out by the richest donors. Of course there are people in Albany who oppose reform, because they’ve made the current system work for them. We need fundamental change to make the system work for the rest of us.
Photo by Senator Dean Skelos.