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A Small-Donor Matching Public Campaign Finance System Is in Reach in New York

Albany’s top three leaders must now appoint the commission responsible for establishing the system.

Cross-posted from the Daily News.

Death by commis­sion. That’s what cynics are saying about a new law passed in Albany as part of the budget, which mandates creation of a statewide system public finan­cing of elec­tions, but leaves most of the details of that reform in the hands of an appoin­ted panel.

For now, death by commis­sion is only a pess­im­istic predic­tion. We’re cynics about Albany, too, but the weeks before the budget vote showed that the press, New York­ers and Wash­ing­ton poli­cy­makers are watch­ing what happens with public finan­cing. As long as that atten­tion remains, our elec­ted offi­cials will find it diffi­cult not to follow through.

The purpose of the new law is to incentiv­ize candid­ates to seek small dona­tions rather than chase big checks from lobby­ists and special interests, and to encour­age qual­i­fied candid­ates to compete regard­less of their access to big donors. The nine-member commis­sion has until Decem­ber to develop a small-donor public finan­cing program that will do this. Its recom­mend­a­tions will become law unless the Legis­lature makes changes within 20 days.

If we hold our lead­ers to their prom­ises, we should have a robust small-donor match system before the year is out. This would make New York a national model of demo­cracy that works for every­one, not just for a few wealthy special interests.

Under small-donor public finan­cing, candid­ates who opt in agree to accept lower contri­bu­tion limits, but the small dona­tions they receive are matched with public dollars. Under propos­als previ­ously intro­duced by the governor and legis­lature, the match on small dona­tions would be six to one, so that a New York­er’s contri­bu­tion of $10 is worth $70 to the candid­ate.

The public is exas­per­ated after decades of decisions by Albany that seem only to bene­fit a few big donors. In Novem­ber, we saw just how far the balance in Albany tilts toward a tiny group. The top 100 donors contrib­uted signi­fic­antly more money to state candid­ates than the estim­ated 137,000 small donors combined.

poll in the few days before the budget vote showed that New York­ers over­whelm­ingly favored having a small-donor match­ing system in the budget: upstate New York, 77%; Long Island, 81%; Hudson Valley, 80%; and New York City, 77%.

Nation­ally, the House last month passed its own version of small donor public finan­cing as part of the larger For the People Act. Last week, 47 senat­ors co-sponsored a Senate version.

“We believe that small donor match­ing is among the best means possible to tackle the danger­ous, undue influ­ence of big money in our polit­ics,” wrote Reps. Jerry Nadler, Hakeem Jeffries, Caro­lyn Malo­ney and three other New York State repres­ent­at­ives in a March 29 letter to the governor, the state Senate major­ity leader, and the state Assembly speaker. “New York State is in a unique posi­tion to show the rest of the coun­try how this mean­ing­ful and neces­sary campaign finance reform can be accom­plished and make a differ­ence in our polit­ics.”

We’ll know very soon if the cynics are right, or if the commis­sion is what our lead­ers have prom­ised. The first clue? How and when it’s staffed.

The law says that lead­ers in the legis­lat­ive and exec­ut­ive branches appoint the members of the commis­sion. Those selec­tions should happen quickly (in the next few weeks) and thought­fully. The commis­sion won’t succeed if any members aren’t dedic­ated to the project.

Once convened, the commis­sion should oper­ate with trans­par­ency. Its meet­ings and hear­ings should be open to the public and convened through­out the state. Before making its final recom­mend­a­tions, the commis­sion should release a draft report for public comment. By Decem­ber, we should have a robust small-donor match­ing program.

Make no mistake, this reform chal­lenges entrenched power, and there is every reason to believe that power will try to sabot­age it. But small-donor public finan­cing is the reform our elec­ted offi­cials prom­ised. It’s now in the law. All eyes are on Albany.

(Image: Mike Groll/AP)