Co-authored by Gerald Benjamin, director of the Center for Research Regional Engagement and Outreach at SUNY New Paltz, and former New York City corporation counsel.
The swirl of attention around Gov. Cuomo’s shuttering of the Moreland Commission is an easy distraction. Like a magician’s trick, it takes our attention off of where it should really be focused: on the commission’s crucial recommendations for campaign finance reform.
We need to ask once more how we can achieve these reforms, which are crucial to deterring politicians’ misbehavior and improving governance in New York State.
With the number of public officials forced from office for criminal or ethical reasons mounting, Cuomo last summer appointed a Moreland Commission of top prosecutors and civic leaders. They were to investigate corruption in government and recommend concrete remedies.
And they did — before Cuomo closed their doors. Now, claims of high-level political interference are flying in the deal that led to the shutdown. But interference or no, the Moreland Commission produced a wide-ranging exposé of New York’s pay-to-play politics.
For example, in its interim report, the commission uncovered multiple e-mails from lobbyists and others advising their clients they needed to make five-figure donations to get legislation passed or killed.
These are amounts that exceed what many New Yorkers earn in a year.
“Again and again,” the commission noted in its report, “our investigations have uncovered evidence showing that access to elected officials comes at a price, and that the fight over legislation is often between entities with vast financial resources at their disposal . . . the majority of New Yorkers are shut out of the political process.”
A statewide public financing system to elevate average New Yorkers’ voices in our elections, buttressed by other comprehensive reforms — like lower limits on how much one person can contribute to a political candidate (now at an outrageous $60,800 for statewide candidates per election cycle) and strong independent enforcement of campaign finance laws — will reduce the power of big money special interests.
Is it remotely possible that such a far ranging reform could become law? Here’s the good news: The state Legislature came tantalizingly close in the last two years to passing just the kind of reforms Moreland recommended.
No more shying away. No more vague promises of reform. New Yorkers can demand those seeking to serve in the legislature work to ensure passage of comprehensive campaign finance reform next year.
There are two reasons the Moreland commissioners — many of whom began their tenure skeptical of public financing — came to see it as the single best way forward.
First, their investigations revealed the scope of Albany’s big-money problem. “New York’s campaign finance laws and practices,” they wrote, “enable special interests and wealthy individuals to flood the political process with enormous amounts of money,” corrupting the process and leaving average citizens with little sway over policy decisions.
Second, they came to understand how a public financing system that matches small donations with public money could fundamentally alter this equation.
At the cost of a few cents a day per New Yorker, candidates for office could actually raise more money for their campaign by appealing to the mass of their average constituents than they could through backroom meetings with a few big funders.
The effect would extend beyond campaigning. Once elected, those who secured office by using public financing would have every incentive to push legislation that benefits the thousands of men and women they were elected to represent.
Goodbye, tax loopholes for elite special interests. Hello, passing legislation to improve the lives of the millions of New Yorkers who cannot afford million-dollar contributions.
New York City has successfully used a similar public financing system for years. It works.
A 2012 report by the Brennan Center and Campaign Finance Institute found almost 90% of the city’s census blocks groups were home to people who gave $175 or less to a City Council candidate — compared to only 30% that were home to someone who gave to a candidate for State Assembly.
We know that once financial contributions are made, additional engagement follows. This is a crucial antidote to forces that generate cynicism and alienation from public life.
Andrew Cuomo had his chance to get campaign finance reform done this year. He proposed legislation and put it in the budget, but at the last minute pronounced it unachievable.
It is now up to the Legislature to act.
(Photo: Office of the Governor)