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Lhota’s Super PAC Backers Could Increase Special Interest Power in NY

A new lawsuit could bring Super PACs to New York City. But it would make things even worse in Albany, where special interest money already makes up the vast majority of political giving. Instead, we need to empower ordinary citizens with public financing.

New York City voters will spend the next month deciding who they want as their next mayor. But out-of-state interests are trying to butt in, hoping to influence voters’ choice with an unprecedented flood of outside money. New York State’s weak campaign finance laws are already under the spotlight. It would be a shame if at the very time a Gov. Cuomo-appointed Moreland Commission investigates corruption in Albany, a wealthy few were allowed to unravel our state’s few protections against the influence of big money in politics.

One of these individuals is Craig Engle, a Washington lawyer and Joe Lhota supporter with extensive Republican Party ties. Today, Engle’s Super PAC will argue in federal court to block New York’s aggregate contribution limit for donations to groups, like Super PACs, that spend money on behalf of candidates without coordinating with them. This cap prevents individuals from making more than $150,000 in political donations a year, whether the money goes to candidates or outside groups. Engle complains the cap ties his group’s hands — he’s confident his group, New York Progress and Protection PAC, could collect far bigger donations if the law is struck down.

A victory for Mr. Engle is almost certain to bring the kind of Super PACs we’ve seen at the federal level to New York City. That’s bad news. But the news will be even worse in Albany, where special interest money makes up the vast majority of political giving. Opening the door to Super PACs could kill any voice that the ordinary citizen still has left in Albany.

New York City’s well-respected public financing system gives city elections some protection from special interest money. The system matches small donations from city residents, allowing candidates to fundraise from local residents instead of a few wealthy donors. Public campaign funding blunted the impact of outside spending in this year’s primary elections. In 2009, matching funds allowed Bill Thompson to provide meaningful competition to Michael Bloomberg’s self-financed juggernaut.

At the state level, without a public funding system, candidates can only address the threat of massive outside spending by chasing down as much money from big donors as possible. This only exacerbates Albany’s culture of corruption, increasing the outsized influence of a few wealthy donors who control policymaking.

Experience shows that the candidate backed by the biggest money doesn’t always win, but a candidate far enough behind in spending is almost sure to lose. A statewide small-donor public matching system is necessary to empower average New Yorkers to compete in elections awash with outside money.