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Money in Politics This Week: Testimony from Jurisdictions with Public Financing Shows That It Works

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

  • Katherine Munyan
  • Syed Zaidi
November 1, 2013

Crossposted at ReformNY

The Brennan Center regularly compiles 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 and Katherine Munyan.

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


Testimony from Jurisdictions with Public Financing Shows That It Works

This Monday, the Moreland Commission welcomed testimony from Michael Malbin, executive director at the Campaign Finance Institute, and two agencies with experience in administering publicly financed elections – the Connecticut Secretary of State’s office and the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Connecticut Deputy Secretary of State James F. Spallone said that adopting partial public funding of political campaigns in the state has “been a tremendous success” that has increased the number of contested races and widened the slate of candidates that run for office. “Candidates can now spend more time connecting with their constitutents, campaigning door to door, attending events and participating in forums and debates and less time raising money,” he said. Amy Loprest, executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, informed the commission that tough enforcement via audits and investigations ensure that public funds are not misused by candidates. “Candidates in New York City know that their campaign will be held to strict standards – and that their opponent’s campaign will be held to the same standards,” she said. Finally, Professor Michael Malbin pointed out that publicly financed elections in New York State would only cost about $2.12 per resident per year. But this small investment, he stressed, could save taxpayers millions that are currently spent on projects benefiting special interests.

Moreland Commission Scrutinizes Election Board at Latest Hearing

In its last hearing on the state of New York’s broken election laws, the Moreland Commission scrutinized the ability of the State Board of Elections to effectively enforce laws and regulations. At the hearing, well attended by community activists and members of the general public, State Board of Elections officials stressed that a backlog of campaign and election complaints were due to inadequate personnel and budgetary resources. The commissioners however, asked why the board failed to hire enough staff when it had the opportunity and to follow-up on submitted complaints, in the face of evidentiary backing. The partisan structure of the board, which has been faulted for impeding investigations that would disfavor the major political parties, was also called into question.

Assemblywoman Barrett: Public Financing Necessary to Clean Up Albany

In a Poughkeepsie Journal op-ed on Sunday, Assemblywoman Didi Barrett (D-116th) expressed her support for comprehensive campaign finance reform as a solution to Albany’s corrosive culture of money above all else. Barret competed in a special election in March, 2012 and then a general election in November, 2012 for state office. On the campaign trail, she witnessed firsthand the necessity of raising large funds in order to compete against incumbents and other well-heeled candidates. Political contribution limits are as high as $8,200 and $10,500 for state Assembly and Senate general election races respectively. Barret recommends comprehensive reform, including lower contribution limits and partial public funding to match small donations, as an alternative to the current system. “Some folks balk at public financing of campaigns, but if we think that taxpayer dollars are not already being expended and public funds grossly wasted in our current pay-to-play system we are fooling themselves,” she said.

Daily News Op-ed: Real Estate Contributions Help Explain Lack of Affordable Housing

In a Daily News op-ed, Jaron Benjamin, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, argues that heavy political contributions by the real estate industry may explain the lack of affordable housing in New York City. Both mayoral candidates for NYC have highlighted that high rents are a serious issue, and dished out plans to expand affordable housing. A report issued earlier this year by the Met Council on Housing found that four developers in New York City used high contribution limits and loopholes to donate more than $1.5 million to state elected officials, political parties and real estate PACs between 2008 and 2012. These same developers also received tax breaks through the 421-a program, an initiative that incentivizes reserving cheaper units on new projects, even though all of the apartments are luxury condos.  The city will forgo nearly $2.4 million in tax revenue from just two of the penthouses in one of these towers. Once all five of the towers are built, the true cost of the tax break will be revealed and it is likely to be magnitudes higher.

Moreland Commission Has Historic Opportunity to Help Pass Structural Reform

Karen Scharff, executive director at Citizen Action of New York, writes in the Huffington Post that if the Moreland Commission properly examines the problems in New York State campaign finance law, it can help lead to the passage of systematic reform. The Commission’s investigations into our current state of election financing can expose just how serious these problems really are: sky-high contribution limits, loopholes for real estate developers, unrestricted donations to political party housekeeping accounts and weak enforcement, all of which generate greater dependence on a small group of special interests, rather than constituents. The final commission report, due December 1st, will highlight the investigative findings, as well as recommendations for reform. It is vitally important that the commission “document how things work now and why structural reform is absolutely necessary to return state government to the people.” Then, the commissioners “can make full throated recommendations for that kind of reform.”



Arizona Legislators Taking Campaign Contribution Limits to State Supreme Court

Top legislators in Arizona, Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker Andy Tobin, plan to appeal to the state Supreme Court to lift an injunction issued by the state Court of Appeals against higher campaign limits. The legislature passed the higher limits this summer, which included raising the contribution limit for individuals from $390 to $4,000. Supporters claimed that higher campaign limits would allow candidates to fight back against independent spending, but opponents worried it would disable the public funding system passed by voters in 1998. The Citizens Clean Elections Commission, created as part of the 1998 ballot measure, filed suit, arguing that the new limits violated the Voter Protection Act, which requires changes to voter-backed initiatives be approved by a statewide vote or with three-quarters of the legislature’s support. The higher limits did not pass with either. For now, with the preliminary injunction by the Court of Appeals, campaigns must abide by the lower contribution limits while the case is remanded to a trial judge.

Obama Nominates Campaign Fundraisers to Diplomatic Posts

On Wednesday, President Obama nominated Mark Gilbert and Ron Barber as U.S. Ambassadors to New Zealand and Iceland, respectively.  Gilbert has raised at least $1.2 million for Obama since 2007, and Barber raised $500,000 for Obama’s reelection campaign. Neither is a career diplomat. So far this year, 30 percent of Obama’s ambassador-nominees have been big campaign fundraisers, while 46 percent have been career diplomats.  This trend is not unique to the Obama administration.  Dating back to Reagan’s tenure, every president has filled approximately 30 percent of diplomatic posts with political appointees, often top donors. Political fundraisers argue that wealthy top fundraisers, as “captains of industry,” bring important business skills and political acumen to diplomatic posts.  State department veterans take a dimmer view. Thomas Pickering, the retired U.S. Ambassador who led the investigation into the Benghazi attacks, said that abroad these political appointments have “the effect of diminishing perhaps the sense that the US is treating these countries with the respect they deserve.”

House Passes Bill Written by Bank Lobbyists

On Wednesday, virtually all the House Republicans were joined by 70 Democrats to pass H.R. 992, the Swaps Regulatory Improvement Act.  The bill would weaken the financial regulations of the Dodd-Frank Act, passed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.  In the “push-out rule,” the Dodd-Frank Act required banks to move trades of certain risky derivatives, including swaps, to non-bank affiliates not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and less likely to receive government bailouts—protecting tax payers from ending up paying for these risky trades.  The new bill would eliminate this provision, which is vastly unpopular in the banking industry – unsurprising, since Wall Street lobbyists wrote most of the bill. Seventy of the bill’s 85 lines directly reflect recommendations from Citigroup lobbyists, and two paragraphs were almost word-to-word duplicates of Citigroup drafts obtained by The New York Times. The lawmakers backing the bill received almost twice as much in financial industry contributions as the lawmakers opposing it.