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.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM AND ETHICS NEWS
The Independent Democratic Conference Should Bring Fair Elections to the Floor
In a Times Union op-ed Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr., corporate counsel at the Brennan Center, and Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, explained how the Senate is at a historic crossroads, with a unique opportunity to usher in an era of transparency and cleaner elections in Albany. Currently the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) controls the chamber in a power sharing agreement with the Republicans. When forming the coalition, IDC Leader Senator Jeffrey Klein insisted that it would help end gridlock in our legislative process. However, now the IDC is saying that it will not bring its own campaign finance reform bill up for a vote despite overwhelming support for comprehensive reform from the public, a majority of Senators, and all three statewide leaders, including Governor Cuomo. After a string of corruption scandals that confirmed the corrosive role of big money on our elections and policy process, campaign finance reform with independent enforcement of the law should be part of a comprehensive remedy. “Scandal often breeds innovation, and fractured party control of the Senate could offer a rare chance for meaningful change. It still can — if the IDC members decide to let their own proposal come to the floor for a vote.”
Citizens Rally in Albany for Campaign Finance Reform
Hundreds of citizens rallied in Albany on May 29th to pressure their legislative representatives to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform with public financing. Nearly 500 people marched in the Capitol building, and met with over 100 state Assemblymen and Senators from both sides of the partisan divide. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli spoke to the crowd, criticizing the current limits on donations for the Comptroller’s race, which stand at $19,000 for the primary election and $41,100 for the general election. “That’s outrageous,” DiNapoli said. “No wonder people feel that they don’t have power.” New York State Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins was also present. Regarding reform she emphasized that “We all understand the importance of getting people back involved in the process.” Photos and videos from the event are available here.
Residents of Key Senate Districts Ask Their Senators to Pass Reform
Voters across the state are letting their State Senators know that comprehensive campaign finance reform should be an important legislative priority before the end of the legislative session. The Fair Elections proposal is a set of reforms intended for our state’s lax campaign finance laws. New York’s current limits for gubernatorial elections are the highest of all states that restrict campaign donations. Comprehensive reform would not only to reduce these outrageous contribution limits but also provide an incentive for candidates to be responsive to their constituents, by matching donations up to $250 from district residents with public funds. A number of constituents are calling on their Senators to show true leadership and bring the Fair Elections bill, S04705A, to a vote. Constituents of Senators Mark Grisanti, Diane Savino, and David Carlucci have expressed their support for the bill.
Buffalo News Editorial: Senate Should Pass Public Financing
On Sunday, the Buffalo News editorialized in favor of campaign finance reform, and asked Senate Republicans, including Buffalo Senator Mark Grisanti, to pass a comprehensive plan that puts “state government back on the path of respectability.” With the “swamp of criminality and unethical behavior in Albany” and “voter disgust” at unprecedented heights, the time for reform is now, before the end of the legislative session on June 20th. The Buffalo News strongly endorsed public financing of elections as a key aspect of any reform package to “encourage participation by potential candidates who are now intimidated by a system that costs millions of dollars to access and that tilts dramatically toward incumbents.” The proposal follows the model in New York City, which has worked well for two decades. “Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is pushing for reforms this year, and the Assembly is already on board. What is needed are some Senate Republicans who understand the overarching need to restore the trust of their constituents. There are many possibilities and, in Western New York, they include Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, who has already demonstrated an unusual quotient of political courage.”
NYS Attorney General Schneiderman Unveils Disclosure Regulations, Praises Public Matching Funds
At an event sponsored by the Brennan Center and New York Leadership for Accountable Government (NY LEAD) – a coalition of business, civic and philanthropic leaders who favor campaign finance reform – New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman unveiled new disclosure requirements for non-profits engaging in political activities. Under the new regulations, 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organizations that spend more than $10,000 on federal, state and local political activities will be required to file itemized schedules of their expenses and contributions. The regulations cover express advocacy, such as ads that call directly for the election or defeat of a candidate, as wells as issue ads broadcast close to an election. Organizations that fear reprisals or threats from donor disclosure can file exemption waivers. “By requiring nonprofits to disclose the extent and nature of their electioneering activities, we are protecting prospective donors from misleading solicitations, and giving voters more information about who is behind many of the ads they will see in this year’s elections,” Schneiderman stated. NY LEAD member David Calone, President and CEO of Jove Equity Partners, praised the Attorney General’s efforts: “Attorney General Schneiderman’s new disclosure policy offers a concrete solution to the explosive growth in secret non-profit political spending.” Attorney General Schneiderman also remained optimistic that campaign finance reform would pass this year before the end of the legislative session. He dismissed allegations that matching funds would allow corrupt incumbents to gain access to public money, arguing that it would instead expand the field of candidates running. “The bigger problem in New York State is not that we’re spending too much on elections, it’s that in many many cases, as with Mr. Lopez last year in the Assembly race, people easily win re-election no matter what their conduct,” he added.
Professor Benjamin Explains Costs of Publicly Financed Elections
Recently there has been contention about the cost of adopting a public financing system in New York State. According to Professor Michael Malbin, a leading national expert on state and local campaign finance and head of the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute, the cost would range from $1.34 to $2.08 per New York resident per year. In sum, that amounts to between $26 million to $41 million per year. Public financing would encourage new donors to participate since their contributions up to $250 would be matched by public funds. Consequently small donors would be able to compete with big donors. The Senate Republicans have pitched several inflated and often contradictory figures for the cost. Ultimately New Yorkers must ask themselves, is $2.08 a high price to pay for clean elections? As Gerald Benjamin, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at SUNY New Paltz, points out in a Journal News op-ed; Forty-nine out of 63 New York State Senators received most of their campaign contributions from corporations or big money donors. Millions are wasted and misdirected each year because of sweetheart deals for the special interests. “We can choose to take ownership of our troubled state political system by each paying our share toward democracy’s overhead. Or we can outsource democracy, and let the big money interests continue to call the shots.”
Op-Ed by NYC Councilman Koppell Asks Senator Klein to Bring Fair Elections Legislation up for a Vote
On Friday, New York City Councilman Oliver Koppell wrote an op-ed in the Norwood News asking New York Senate Co-Leader Jeffrey Klein to bring Fair Elections legislation to the floor for a vote. Councilman Koppell, who currently represents parts of the Bronx like Klein, also served in the State Assembly in the 1980s. In 1986, he helped draft the first campaign finance reform statute to be introduced in the New York State legislature. Now, 27 years later, a comprehensive reform bill has passed the Assembly and has the support of Governor Cuomo. The fate of the bill depends on the Senate governing coalition of the Independent Democratic Conference lead by Senator Klein and Senate Republicans. Koppell asserts that once public financing is combined with drastically lower contribution limits, improved disclosure rules and stronger enforcement of election laws, it will “restore New York’s democratic integrity by making campaign finance more dependent on the people.” His judgment should carry some weight; he has been an active participant in elections in New York City, where such a system is already in place. Although we cannot eliminate corruption, we can change Albany’s culture of dialing for dollars from lobbyists and deep pocketed special interests. “The Senate is big money’s last bastion of power, and it’s up to Mr. Klein to demonstrate real leadership and get a bill to the floor.”
Financial Industry Contributes Heavily to House Financial Services Committee
According to an investigation by the New York Times, lobbyists from Citibank and other financial firms helped draft 71 out of 80 lines in a new bill that seeks to water down regulations on the industry. The co-sponsors of the bill, the Swaps Regulatory Improvement Act (HR 922), include House Financial Services Committee members Randy Hultgren (R-IL),Jim Himes (D-CT), who have received $50,100 and $47,700 respectively in campaign contributions from the employees of and PACs associated with commercial banks and the securities and investment industry. HR 992 was passed by the House Financial Services Committee this month. It would exempt broad swathes of trades from the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The changes have been opposed by the Treasury Department. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, in the first quarter of 2013, members of the House Financial Services Committee received more than $1.3 million in donations to their campaigns and leadership PACs from the securities and investment firms and commercial banks. The top recipient of cash from the two industries so far this year is Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), the chairman of the committee, who has picked up $140,400. The top Democrat on the committee, Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA), who has criticized the legislation in question, received only $6,000.
Texas Governor Vetoes Disclosure Bill
A political spending disclosure bill in Texas, SB 346, has been vetoed by Governor Rick Perry. The bill, which passed both the Texas House of Representatives and Senate would have required 501(c)(4) non-profits to disclose their political spending. Any non-profit group spending more than $25,000 per year advocating for or against a political candidate would have been required to detail its expenditures and disclose the names of donors that contributed more than $1,000. The move comes as unknown politically active dark money groups have invested heavily in primaries in the state. The chief sponsor of the legislation, Senator Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) said “This is a sad day for integrity and transparency in Texas. Gov. Perry’s veto of SB 346 legalizes money laundering in Texas elections.”