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Money in Politics This Week: Governor Cuomo Introduces Public Financing Bill

Governor Cuomo introduces a comprehensive campaign finance reform bill, editorials ask the Senate Independent Democratic Conference to bring the Fair Elections bill to a vote, celebrities join the Fair Elections team, and more.

  • Syed Zaidi
June 14, 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.


Governor Cuomo Introduces Campaign Finance Reform Legislation with a Public Financing Option

Governor Andrew Cuomo has introduced legislation that seeks to enact a system of small donor matching funds for state elections, along with a number of other provisions designed to reduce corruption and special interest influence. The Governor embraced campaign finance reform as a priority in his State of the State Address back in January, but had not introduced his own bill on the issue until Tuesday of this week. The legislation is part of a broader package of laws designed to improve enforcement of election laws, ease voter registration, strengthen anti-bribery laws, and provide district attorneys with greater power to prosecute public corruption cases. The Governor’s bill lowers contribution limits, requires disclosure of independent expenditures, prohibits using campaign money for personal expenses, and matches small donations from constituents with public funds. “I think on the merits, this is a powerful proposal. It’s long overdue. It’s needed,” the Governor said at a news conference. If Legislators fail to pass the anti-corruption measures, Governor Cuomo has threatened to appoint a special panel, a Moreland Commission, to investigate corruption in the body.

NY LEAD Sends Letter to IDC Urging Reform

On Monday, members of the New York Leadership for Accountable Government – a bipartisan coalition of business, civic, and philanthropic leaders dedicated to reforming elections laws in the state – delivered an open letter to the Senate Independent Democratic Conference. The letter asks Senate Co-President Jeffrey D. Klein and Senators David Carlucci, Diane Savino and David Valesky to ensure that campaign finance reform is brought to the floor for a vote. “We understand that you introduced a comprehensive campaign finance reform bill…However introducing a bill without working to get it passed is worth little to the people of New York,” the letter states. Prominent signatories include Chris Hughes (Facebook Co-Founder), former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley (Co-Chair of Americans for Campaign Reform and two-time NBA Champion), Cynthia DiBartolo (Chairperson of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce), and Philip D. Radford (Greenpeace US Executive Director), among many others. The signatories reminded the Senators of their pledge earlier in the session to make Albany functional and institute major reforms. The letter was printed in the Journal News and the Staten Island Advance and was covered by the Wall Street Journal and City & State.

Journal News Editorial: IDC Should Not Hinder Reform

The Journal News put forth an excellent editorial this week in favor of comprehensive campaign finance reform, including small donor matching funds. Reform has already cleared through the New York State Assembly. However it has failed to move in the State Senate. The Independent Democratic Conference and the Senate Republicans share control over the NYS Senate’s daily agenda. Although the IDC has introduced wide-ranging reform legislation – which includes public matching funds for small donations – and held public hearings on the matter, they’ve refused to bring the bill to a vote without approval from the Senate Republicans. “That is a kind of power sharing that favors political leaders but not people,” the Journal News stated. Federal Prosecutor Preet Bharara has decried the “casualness and cockiness” of corruption in Albany. The IDC members Senator Klein and Carlucci have echoed this sentiment, stating that the “people of New York deserve nothing less” than major change. As the Journal News puts it plainly, “There’s no doubt about that. It is past time to put such rhetoric into concerted action.”

Celebrities Tell Albany Representatives, “Don’t Come Home Without it”

Several notable celebrities have joined the movement to reform elections in New York. Alec Baldwin told Legislators in a YouTube video that “It’s time to stop talking about cleaning up Albany, and start doing it.” There are videos from Liev Schreiber, Jason Alexander, Kathleen Turner, and Cynthia Nixon, and others. The actors have endorsed the Fair Elections reform package which includes a system of matching small donations with public funds, as well as lower contribution limits, restrictions on contractors and lobbyists doing business with the state, and greater enforcement and transparency. Turner put it rather bluntly: “State Legislators, patting each other down for wires, isn’t that embarrassing. It’s time Albany got cleaned up.” All of the actors had an important closing message for Legislators: “Don’t come home without it.”

Governor Cuomo Holds Events Upstate to Boost Support for Public Financing Legislation

After introducing his campaign finance reform legislation in Albany, Governor Andrew Cuomo held events in Syracuse and Buffalo to push for his public financing proposal and other anti-corruption measures. New York Leadership for Accountable Government members former U.S. Representative Mike Arcuri and Diane Cihak, Founder of WomenElect, also spoke at the events. Speaking before community members at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, the Governor informed the audience that he can “receive $50,000 in contributions.” Such a high amount, he insisted, can disenfranchise those who can’t afford $1,000-per-plate fundraisers. Under Cuomo’s proposal, donations to statewide candidates would be capped at $25,000 for those not receiving public money and $12,000 for those participating in the new publicly financed system.

Congressional Candidate Explains Why we Cannot Outsource Elections to Wealthy Special Interests

In an op-ed in the Poughkeepsie Journal, 2012 Congressional candidate Julian Schreibman explained why adopting Fair Elections is so important for New York. Schreibman, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and Senior Assistant District Attorney for Ulster County, said he discovered shortly after campaigning that the need for multimillion-dollar fundraisers turned him away from voters. “The influx of big corporate money has turned campaigning into an arms race for cash, and it forced me to spend far too much time shaking hands with donors instead of speaking with voters.” It is no surprise then that our elected officials spend extraordinary amounts of time fundraising in office for their next election, rather than serving their constituents. With the continual gridlock in D.C., it is essential that states take the lead on passing reform legislation. Much of the stated opposition against publicly financed elections stems from the cost of such a program, which opponents of reform have falsely exaggerated. As Schreibman explains, “Public funds are already used to pay for lawmaker salaries, staffing and other expenses, including direct mail from elected officials. Our campaign finance system is the only aspect of our democracy that is not publicly funded, and it has allowed our campaigns to be captured by wealthy interests. Publicly financed elections will put our campaigns back in the hands of the people, where they belong.”

Buffalo News Editorial: Make Campaign Finance Reform a Priority before End of Session

The Buffalo News has editorialized about its priorities for what the legislature needs to accomplish before adjourning next week. Campaign finance and ethics reform were ranked as number one. As the paper put it bluntly: “Albany remains a cesspool of corruption.” This year several of our assembly members and senators were embroiled in corruption scandals. Publicly matching small donations will allow candidates without deep pockets or entrenched connections to run against financially flush and corrupt incumbents. Research from the good-government group Citizens Union confirms that the New York City elections, where public funding is already in place, allow for greater voter choice and more electoral competition, when compared with New York State races.


NC Court of Appeals Judges Affirm Their Support for Publicly Financed Judicial Races

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and State Senate leader Philip Berger (R-Rockingham) are attempting to repeal the successful public financing program for state judicial elections. This week, the Charlotte Observer and the Fayetteville Observer both editorialized to defend the current non-partisan judicial elections program. ReformNY informed readers earlier that three former North Carolina Governors – including Republicans Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin, as well as Democrat Jim Hunt – have come out in support, along with 200 business leaders. Now 14 of the 15 judges on the North Carolina Court of Appeals have added their voice to the chorus in a letter to Senator Berger and Governor McCrory. “Despite our individual differences with respect to race, gender, political party, and judicial philosophy, we all agree that our current system of nonpartisan judicial elections supplemented by public financing is an effective and valuable tool for protecting public confidence in the impartiality and independence of the judiciary,” the judges stated. The letter emphasized that the program minimizes politics in the courtroom, reduces conflicts of interest regarding cases that would otherwise involve major campaign donors, and maintains public confidence in the impartiality of the courts. Judicial elections are funded by a $50 fee levied on members of the North Carolina State Bar and an optional check-off on state income taxes. It is supported by over 67 percent of Republicans, 69 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina.

Former U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., Pleads Guilty

Former Congressional Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., (D-IL) has pled guilty to criminal charges that he engaged in a scheme to spend $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items. Prosecutors recommended four years in prison for Jackson, and an 18-month sentence for Jackson’s wife, Sandra, for filing false joint federal income tax returns that understated the couple’s income. The government also recommended that Jackson pay $750,000 in restitution to the campaign and Sandra Jackson pay $168,000. In sum, according to statements filed by prosecutors in February, Jackson and Sandra spent $582,772.58 to purchase 3,100 personal items from 2005 to April, 2012, including a $43,350 gold-plated men’s Rolex watch, $9,587.64 worth of children’s furniture and $5,150 on fur capes and parkas. The investigation has also revealed that Jackson received a $25,000 check in April, 2011 to pay down the balance on a credit card from someone identified as “Person F,” now revealed to be Greg Calhoun, an Alabama businessman. During his Congressional tenure, Jackson helped set up meetings between Calhoun, executives of the for-profit Education Corporation of America and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Calhoun and Jackson have told officials that the check was a loan. As these examples illustrate, the constant race for campaign funds in the post-Citizens United world corrupts our elected officials and foments donor-politician relationships that can potentially lead to quid pro quo deals.  

SEC Should Issue Rules Mandating Disclosure of Corporate Political Spending

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has the issue of political spending disclosure on its regulatory agenda, after more than 600,000 public comments poured in urging the SEC to act on the matter. Corporations can donate money to “social welfare” organizations and other tax-exempt entities that can in turn spent 49 percent of their annual expenditures on political activity without disclosing their donors. Consequently, extensive networks have evolved to funnel money from corporations to Super PACs and 501(c)(4)s in order to completely shield the identity of donors behind negative political attack ads and spend ever greater sums on political activities. Secretive corporate political activity presents broad concerns to the general public and significant risks to our economy. A study conducted by the International Monetary Fund drew a link between political spending by banks and heavy involvement in risky subprime mortgages. Several business and government organizations have come forward to support the regulatory measures, including five State Treasurers writing in their fiduciary capacity, Vanguard Founder and former CEO John Bogle, the Council of Institutional Investors (with combined assets exceeding $3 trillion), and a global coalition of investors managing over $630 billion. As Lisa Gilbert, director of the Congress Watch Division at Public Citizen, explains: “Corporate political transparency is necessary for the efficient functioning of our capital markets and as a risk management tool for shareholders, corporate management and directors.”