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Money in Politics This Week: Assembly and Senate Weigh Reform Proposals

A roundup with the latest news highlighting the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics — and the need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform.

  • Syed Zaidi
April 26, 2013

Crossposted at ReformNY

Every Friday, the Brennan Center will be compiling the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics—and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform. We’ll also be linking to dispatches from around the country highlighting the national scope of this crisis. This week’s links were contributed by Syed Zaidi.

For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag#moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.



Syracuse Post-Standard Editorializes In Favor of Small Donor Matching Funds for First Time

On Tuesday, the Syracuse Post-Standard editorialized in favor of small donor matching funds for the first time. According to the editorial, when paired with spending limits and other electoral reforms, public financing of campaigns can help address the culture of corruption in Albany. “Public campaign financing will not cure all that ails the body politic. It cannot detect a larcenous heart. But it seems a relatively cheap and sensible step toward restoring confidence that state government – the Legislature, in particular – acts in the public’s interest.” Although opponents have expressed concern about the costs, the Post-Standard points to the $420 million in incentives that the film and television industries received in this year’s state budget. And film and television are only one special interest group out of many that are present in Albany. The editorial notes, “If we value our democracy, we should be willing to invest in it.” Engaging more small donors and making legislators more dependent on their constituents, rather than a few wealthy special interests, offers an added layer of defense against corruption.

Campaign Finance Reform Proposals by Assembly Democrats and Senate Independent Democratic Conference

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has unveiled a new campaign finance reform proposal. The bill, A4980B, includes a small donor matching component, where every contribution up to $250 by state residents is matched with public funds at a 6-to-1 ratio. “We cannot allow elected public service to become the exclusive domain of the wealthy and the well connected,” Speaker Silver stated. Stronger enforcement of the law and penalties for violations will be enforced by a new body, the Fair Elections Board, to be situated within the state Board of Elections. Organizations making independent political expenditures over $1,000 would have to disclose the name of the person or group behind the spending, and report all major contributors (those that donated over $1,000) to the Board of Elections. The Senate Independent Democratic Conference, headed by Senator Jeffrey Klein, criticized the proposal for failing to eliminate political party housekeeping accounts, and transfers between party committees and individual candidates. "Unless these measures are part of a more comprehensive plan to eliminate party slush funds and slash six figure contributions, we’ll be right back to where we started.  Our members look forward to discussing these proposals alongside the more comprehensive plan outlined by the Independent Democratic Conference last week," IDC Spokesman Eric Soufer stated.

The Cost of Public Financing is about $2 per New Yorker per Year

Recently, the New York State Senate Republican Conference,which is opposed to publicly funded electionsfinally explainedhow it arrived at its inflated estimate of the cost of public financing. The method was immediately assailed by campaign finance expert Prof. Michael Malbin, who called it “little more than back of the envelope arithmetic based on incredible assumptions.” The Campaign Finance Institute has used peer-reviewed methods to conclude that the cost of public campaign funding under current proposals would be between $26 and $41 million per year. Senate Republicans’ estimate is many times higher. The Republicans’ calculation unrealistically assumes that there would be two candidates in every general election and each would earn the maximum amount of public funds. For primary elections, the GOP analysis assumes that a quarter of senators would participate in a primary, with one candidate per race receiving the maximum amount of public funds. It is important to note that under Speaker Sheldon Silver’s bill, (1) receiving public funds depends on the candidate’s ability to raise money from numerous small donors, so only donations up to $250 are matched with taxpayer dollars and that (2) candidates are limited to a maximum amount of public funds ($400,000 for Senate candidates and $200,000 for Assembly candidates in the general election race). The Senate Republicans’ assumption, that two candidates in every general election would receive the maximum amount of public funds, does not jibe with the experience of New York City, where a multiple matching funds system is already in place. Between 2001 and 2009, only 51 percent of candidates running in New York City elections received the maximum amount of public matching funds. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, under the least expensive scenario, the cost would be $1.34 per New York resident per year, while it would be $2.08 per New York resident per year for the most expensive scenario—a small price to pay for cleaner elections.

Campaign Finance Reform Can Help Crack Down on Corruption

A 2011 report by the Center for Competitive Politics has been seized upon by opponents of Fair Elections to argue that the public financing system in New York City is characterized by consistent abuse of public funds and corruption. But the facts just don’t support that characterization. Since New York City adopted public financing in 1988 it has not faced a corruption scandal on the same scale as the 1980s. The CCP report outlines 24 scandals related to New York City elections in an attempt to argue that public funding does not deter corruption. Brennan Center counselIan Vandewalker’s detailed investigation of the report reveals that several cases have no relationship to public financing, including one involving a state legislator who never participated in city elections. Half the cases involve allegations or investigations that yielded no criminal or election law violation. Furthermore, several others listed describe instances where candidates attempted to violate the rules of New York City’s public financing system, but were caught by the city’s enforcement agency and fined or denied public funds. Enforcement is a necessary component of any effective campaign finance reform proposal. Along with vigilant enforcement of the law, disclosure of contributions, and lower contribution limits, public financing of elections can “end the mad chase for campaign cash that starts some elected officials down the road to corruption and … make candidates dependent on ordinary voters rather than special interests.”

Bad Legal Arguments Can’t Stop Reform

With the introduction of Fair Elections legislation in both chambers, and strong popular support for the effort among voters, opponents are attempting to raise legal barriers to the reform. Specifically, some are alleging that  the New York State Constitution forbids the use of public funds for election campaigns. The Constitution says that “the money of the state shall not be given or loaned to or in aid of any private corporation or association, or private undertaking.” As Larry Norden, deputy director at the Brennan Center, illustrates, elections are, in any sense of the word, competitions for public office. In a 2011 case,Bordeleau v. State of New York, the New York Court of Appeals evaluated the section of the Constitution at issue and ruled that the “burden” of challenging any public financing statute on these grounds is “exceedingly strong.” This is because “enactments of the Legislature” enjoy the presumption of constitutionality, especially when Legislative expenditures are “designed in the public interest.” Furthermore, 46 other statutes that have a similar prohibition on the use of public funds for private undertakings, including Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine, are home to thriving public election financing programs.

New Demos Report Lauds Benefits of Public Financing in Connecticut

Demos has released a new report titled Fresh Start: The Impact of Public Campaign Financing in Connecticut. The study is co-authored by J. Mijin Cha, senior policy analyst at Demos, and Miles Rapoport, Demos president and a former Secretary of State for Connecticut. It chronicles significant changes in the Connecticut Legislature following the state-wide adoption of a public financing system. Public financing of elections has increased the number of small donors because Legislators receive incentives for raising small contributions from a minimum number of in-district donors. The influence of lobbyists has perceptively declined. As one former Legislator recalled, “Before public financing, during the session … there were ‘shakedowns’ where lobbyists and corporate sponsors had events and you as a legislator had to go. That’s no longer a part of the reality.” In addition, elections are more competitive, as new potential candidates are no longer deterred by the large war chests of incumbents. The 2008 election had the lowest number of uncontested seats since 1998, indicating that more candidates were running. Public financing has also proven to be immensely popular with voters, with 79 percent in favor of the clean elections program. Furthermore, voters understand that loose campaign finance laws and mega-donations breed corruption. They were three times more likely to agree with the statement, “The state needs the Citizens’ Election Program because, in the past, lobbyists and state contractors received special deals in exchange for political contributions which has even landed some politicians in jail,” than an alternative criticizing the cost of the program.

Governor Cuomo Announces New Proposals to Anti-Corruption Agenda

Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced new proposals to his anti-corruption agenda, following the arrest of New York State Senator Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis). The Governor wants to revoke Wilson-Pakula, which governs the process by which candidates can run on a party’s ballot even if they are not members of that party. State Senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, is charged with trying to bribe Republican County Chairs in New York City to convince them to allow Smith to run on the GOP ballot for mayor. The Governor is arguing that Wilson-Pakula creates ethical conflicts, as candidates try to bribe or make large donations to political parties to gain ballot access. “You‘ve heard the expression ‘pay to play’,” Cuomo said. “This is pay to run.” The Assembly Democrats are not backing the repeal of Wilson-Pakula. “I don’t think we should preclude people from running on more than one [political party] line,” Speaker Sheldon Silver stated.