Last night’s Moreland Commission hearing focused on two main topics: the New York State Board of Elections’ failure to effectively enforce state election law and the success of public campaign financing systems in New York City and Connecticut. The first topic—the weaknesses of BOE enforcement practices, which were already well known – got most of the attention at the hearing and in the press. The equally important second topic—how we start to address the corrupting influence of big, special interest money in New York politics—was almost entirely ignored.
As they grilled BOE officials, the commissioners’ scathing questions revealed widespread problems with the agency’s current practices. Those questionable policies include refusal to investigate anonymous complaints, even those supported by documentary evidence. Commissioners also questioned the notorious LLC loophole that allows an individual or company to give many times the contribution limit through the use of shell companies. In a distressing example of the BOE’s impotence, the commissioners learned about one investigator, who after failing to receive work from his supervisors despite repeated requests for more to do, resorted to playing solitaire on his computer—as a backlog of hundreds of complaints awaited action.
Advocates of reform anticipated the hearing would examine not just bureaucratic incompetence or illegal activity, but also promising solutions to New York’s glaring campaign finance problems. Witnesses presented testimony in person and in writing about the highly successful enforcement systems in New York City and Connecticut, both of which include public campaign financing, which could serve as a model for New York State.
Connecticut Deputy Secretary of State James Spallone said “campaign finance reform has changed the culture in the Capitol.” Public financing, he said, “is becoming part of our political fabric and a model for the nation.” His written testimony further explained that the system has reduced the influence of special interest lobbyists.
New York City Campaign Finance Board Executive Director Amy Loprest submitted testimony discussing the ways that public financing improves enforcement. Candidates cannot take public funds unless the CFB’s audits and investigations establish that they are in compliance with the election laws. She wrote, “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.”
Campaign Finance Institute Executive Director Michael J. Malbin, a nationally recognized campaign finance expert, submitted testimony detailing the financial aspects of a public funding system. Public funding would cost each New Yorker $2.12 per year and could save the state millions currently spent on special interest provisions large campaign donors currently secure for themselves. Professor Malbin highlighted the urgency: candidates need an alternative to being overwhelmed by large outside spending that threatens to become the new normal. Public funding “should be included in the Governor’s executive budget in January 2014.”
Over the next several weeks, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law will be writing regular updates on efforts to secure comprehensive campaign finance reform centered on public financing of elections. These updates will be posted on the Brennan Center’s New York blog at ReformNY.blogspot.com.