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Doug Chakya
Doug Chakya
Policy Solution

The Case for Small Donor Public Financing in New York

Summary: New York State has a chance to take a bold step to strengthen democracy: enacting small donor public financing.

Published: February 26, 2019

I. What Is Small Donor Public Financing?

Small donor public finan­cing is the most power­ful, proven solu­tion avail­able to counter the over­whelm­ing influ­ence of wealth on our polit­ical process in the after­math of the Citizens United decision, which gave the green light to unlim­ited special interest spend­ing. It is built on six compon­ents:

  • A $6-to-$1 match of small dona­tions. For each small contri­bu­tion by an in-state resid­ent, a candid­ate for a state office would receive six times that amount in public money. A contri­bu­tion of $10 would then be worth $70. This would boost the voices of regu­lar New York­ers.

  • Qual­i­fy­ing thresholds. To ensure that funds are not wasted on frivol­ous or uncom­pet­it­ive candid­ates, public finan­cing parti­cipants would have to first demon­strate reas­on­able levels of support by collect­ing a minimum number of small dona­tions from constitu­ents.

  • Reduced contri­bu­tion limits. New York’s contri­bu­tion limits are currently sky high. Indi­vidu­als can give as much as $69,700 to a candid­ate for statewide office, $19,300 to a state Senate candid­ate, and $9,400 to a state Assembly candid­ate in an elec­tion cycle.  foot­note­ht­tpswwwelec­tion­snygov­cf­con­tri­bu­tion­lim­it­shtm­l­Lim­its_9meltfi https://www.elec­tions.ny.gov/cfcon­tri­bu­tion­lim­its.html#Limits New York State Board of Elec­tions, “Contri­bu­tion Limits,” accessed Febru­ary 15, 2019, https://www.elec­tions.ny.gov/cfcon­tri­bu­tion­lim­its.html#Limits. That’s much higher than federal contri­bu­tion limits or those in most states. Candid­ates parti­cip­at­ing in small donor public finan­cing would be required to agree to lower limits, to further the program’s goal of focus­ing fundrais­ing on every­day constitu­ents and voters rather than deep-pock­eted donors.

  • A cap on public funds, but no limits on total fundrais­ing or spend­ing. Parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates would be able to compete in the face of unlim­ited inde­pend­ent spend­ing after Citizens United. They would be allowed to raise private funds even after hitting the public fund­ing cap, subject to indi­vidual contri­bu­tion limits, and to spend without limit if they need to do so.

  • Trans­par­ency and over­sight. To protect New York’s invest­ment of public funds, the program would require public disclos­ure by parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates of fundrais­ing and spend­ing and enforce compli­ance rules effect­ively. Draw­ing on exper­i­ence in Connecti­cut, it would estab­lish effect­ive over­sight while making compli­ance easy and inex­pens­ive.

  • Adequate and reli­able fund­ing. If the program had been in place in 2018, even an aggress­ive projec­tion of the cost to New York — assum­ing that every candid­ate opted in — would have come to less than 1/10 of one percent of the state budget for fund­ing and admin­is­tra­tion, or less than a penny per day per New Yorker. foot­note1_ehr2nan 1 Michael J. Malbin and Brendan Glavin, “Small-Donor Match­ing Funds for New York State Elec­tions: A Policy Analysis of the Poten­tial Impact and Cost,” Campaign Finance Insti­tute, Febru­ary 2019, 12, http://www.cfinst.org/pdf/State/NY/Policy-Analysis_Public-Finan­cing-in-NY-State_Feb2019_wAppendix.pdf.

End Notes

II. Introduction

New York State has a chance to take a bold step to strengthen demo­cracy: enact­ing small donor public finan­cing. This system has worked for decades in New York City. Expan­ded to state elec­tions, it would be the biggest single response in the nation to the decision in Citizens United. And it would meet a surging public demand for change. 

Coun­ter­ing big money in elec­tions would help trans­form New York polit­ics. It would free legis­lat­ors to better repres­ent their constitu­ents. It would bolster the diversity of donors, office­hold­ers, and candid­ates. It would curb corrup­tion. It would respond to the explo­sion of civic engage­ment seen in the 2018 elec­tion and boost it further. And it would enhance public confid­ence.  foot­note1_tmezlpu 1 See More­land Commis­sion to Invest­ig­ate Public Corrup­tion, “Prelim­in­ary Report,” State of New York, Decem­ber 2, 2013, 41, 47, https://public­cor­rup­tion.more­land.ny.gov/sites/default/files/more­land_report_final.pdf (observing the increased influ­ence of every­day people and greater trust in govern­ment under public finan­cing); DeNora Geta­chew and Ava Mehta, Break­ing Down Barri­ers: The Faces of Small Donor Public Finan­cing, Bren­nan Center for Justice, June 9, 2016, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/sites/default/files/public­a­tions/Faces_of_Public_Finan­cing.pdf (offer­ing candid­ate testi­mon­ies on how public finan­cing allows them to focus on constitu­ents); Spen­cer A. Over­ton, “The Parti­cip­a­tion Interest,” Geor­getown Law Journal 100, 2012: 1279, https://schol­ar­ship.law.gwu.edu/cgi/view­con­tent.cgi?article=1167&context=faculty_public­a­tions (observing that “finan­cial parti­cip­a­tion” can lead to other forms of civic engage­ment).

Reshap­ing the way campaigns are financed is widely popu­lar; all across the coun­try, the public has deman­ded reform.  foot­note2_iup4tur 2 Tim Lau, “A Bid to Counter Big Money in Polit­ics Is Gain­ing Steam,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, Janu­ary 15, 2019, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/blog/bid-counter-big-money-polit­ics-gain­ing-steam. See also Brad­ley Jones, “Most Amer­ic­ans Want to Limit Campaign Spend­ing, Say Big Donors Have Greater Polit­ical Influ­ence,” Pew Research Center, May 8, 2018, http://www.pewre­search.org/fact-tank/2018/05/08/most-amer­ic­ans-want-to-limit-campaign-spend­ing-say-big-donors-have-greater-polit­ical-influ­ence/; “The Demo­cracy Project Report,” Demo­cracy Project, June 26, 2018, https://www.demo­cracypro­jectre­port.org/report. The very first bill intro­duced in the new U.S. House of Repres­ent­at­ives — H.R. 1 — would enact small donor public finan­cing nation­wide.  foot­note3_2t8oaqj 3 Mike DeBonis, “House Demo­crats to Unveil Polit­ical Reform Legis­la­tion as ‘H.R.1,’ ” Wash­ing­ton Post, Novem­ber 30, 2018, https://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/polit­ics/2018/11/30/house-demo­crats-unveil-polit­ical-reform-legis­la­tion-hr/. With oppos­i­tion from the Senate major­ity leader, that pack­age will likely not become law this year.  foot­note4_0gs6phw 4 Mitch McCon­nell, “Mitch McCon­nell: Behold the Demo­crat Politi­cian Protec­tion Act,” Wash­ing­ton Post, Janu­ary 17, 2019, https://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/opin­ions/call-hr-1-what-it-is-the-demo­crat-politi­cian-protec­tion-act/2019/01/17/dcc957be-19cb-11e9–9ebf-c5fed­1b7a081_story.html. But with a governor and a new major­ity in the state legis­lature that have expressed support for progress­ive change, New York has the chance to lead.
 
How does small donor public finan­cing work? Constitu­ents who give small amounts to parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates will see their contri­bu­tions matched by public money.  foot­note5_wlee­j6n 5 Brent Ferguson, State Options for Reform, Bren­nan Center for Justice, 2015, 1, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/sites/default/files/public­a­tions/State_Options_for_Reform_FINAL.pdf. The system is volun­tary: Candid­ates opt in by rais­ing enough small initial dona­tions to qual­ify, and they accept condi­tions includ­ing lower contri­bu­tion limits.  foot­note6_dbb70b6 6 Ibid. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s current proposal would provide a $6-to-$1 match on each private contri­bu­tion of up to $175. Under this formula, a constitu­ent dona­tion of $10 would be worth $70 to a parti­cip­at­ing candid­ate, and $175 would be worth $1,225. The Assembly passed a similar bill several years ago, and lead­ers of both legis­lat­ive houses have proposed compar­able plans in the past.  foot­note7_bt2wh43 7 Office of Assembly Speaker Shel­don Silver, “Assembly Passes 2013 Fair Elec­tions Act,” May 7, 2013, https://assembly.state.ny.us/Press/20130507/. In 2016, State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie sponsored the 2016 Fair Elec­tions Act (A09281); see https://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?default_fld=&leg_video=&bn=A09281&term=2015&Summary=Y&Actions=Y&Text=Y. Simil­arly, Andrea Stew­art-Cous­ins, now the State Senate major­ity leader, has sponsored versions of the Fair Elec­tions Act in the 2013–2014 (S4705C), 2015–2016 (S3502), and 2017–2018 sessions (S7593). See 2014 Fair Elec­tions Act, S.B. 4705C, 2013 Leg., 236th Sess. (N.Y. 2013); Fair Elec­tions Act, S.B. 3502, 2015 Leg., 238th Sess. (N.Y. 2015); Fair Elec­tions Act, S.B. 7593, 2017 Leg., 240th Sess. (N.Y. 2018).
 
The system reviewed in this report is based on New York City’s program, considered to be the nation’s best. The city’s system has trans­formed the polit­ical parti­cip­a­tion of non-wealthy resid­ents both as donors and as candid­ates. The vast major­ity of candid­ates who run for district or city­wide office parti­cip­ate in the program.  foot­note8_rakq220 8 In the most recent city elec­tions, in 2017, 218 of the 325 candid­ates running for office parti­cip­ated in the city’s match­ing funds program. See “Candid­ate List: 2017 City­wide Elec­tions,” New York City Campaign Finance Board, last updated Janu­ary 22, 2019, https://www.nyccfb.info/follow-the-money/candid­ates/2017. In the past few years alone, eight local govern­ments includ­ing Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and Suffolk County, New York, have adop­ted similar reforms. foot­note9_atmc00t 9 The follow­ing juris­dic­tions have passed small donor public finan­cing laws since 2010: Mont­gomery County, Mary­land (see Bill Turque, “Mont­gomery Coun­cil approves plan for public finance of local campaigns,” Wash­ing­ton Post, Septem­ber 30, 2014, https://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/local/md-polit­ics/mont­gomery-coun­cil-approves-plan-for-public-finance-of-local-campaigns/2014/09/30/b3e2b15c-482d-11e4-b72e-d60a9229c­c10_story.html?utm_term=.5abd­d95c­cbe5); Port­land, Oregon (see Ian Vandewalker, “Port­land Enacts Small Donor Public Finan­cing,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, Decem­ber 16, 2016, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/blog/port­land-enacts-small-donor-public-finan­cing); Berke­ley, Cali­for­nia (see “Public Finan­cing Program,” City of Berke­ley, accessed Febru­ary 20, 2019, https://www.city­of­berke­ley.info/Clerk/Elec­tions/Public_Finan­cing_Program.aspx); Suffolk County, New York (see David M. Schwartz, “Suffolk Legis­lature OKs public finan­cing of county campaigns,” News­day, Decem­ber 19, 2017, https://www.news­day.com/long-island/polit­ics/suffolk-public-finan­cing-1.15523881); Howard County, Mary­land (see Andrew Michaels, “Howard County Coun­cil passes small donor finance system to begin in 2022 elec­tion cycle,” Baltimore Sun, June 6, 2017, https://www.baltimore­sun.com/news/mary­land/howard/columbia/ph-ho-cf-coun­cil-campaign-fund­ing-0608–20170606-story.html); Wash­ing­ton, District of Columbia (see Martin Auster­muhle, “Bowser Signs Bill Creat­ing Public Finan­cing Program For Polit­ical Campaigns — And Will Fund It,” WAMU, March 13, 2018, https://wamu.org/story/18/03/13/bowser-signs-bill-creat­ing-public-finan­cing-program-polit­ical-campaigns-will-fund/); Prince George’s County, Mary­land (see Rachel Chason, “Prince George’s approves match­ing funds for local candid­ates — start­ing in 2026,” Wash­ing­ton Post, Octo­ber 24, 2018, https://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/local/md-polit­ics/prince-georges-approves-public-finance-system-for-local-candid­ates/2018/10/24/47f7b75a-d738–11e8-a10f-b51546b10756_story.html); and Denver, Color­ado (see Hazel Millard, “Another Elec­tion Winner — Public Finan­cing,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, Novem­ber 12, 2018, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/blog/another-elec­tion-winner-%E2%80%94pub­lic-finan­cing). Follow­ing the 2010 Citizens United decision, which enabled unlim­ited special interest spend­ing, and with a Supreme Court today that is unlikely to reverse course soon, small donor public finan­cing is the most power­ful solu­tion avail­able to counter the influ­ence of wealth on our polit­ical process.
 
New York State needs this trans­form­at­ive change. For too long, Albany has fostered a “pay-to-play polit­ical culture [that] is greased by a campaign finance system in which large donors set the legis­lat­ive agenda,” as the More­land Commis­sion to Invest­ig­ate Public Corrup­tion put it in 2013.  foot­note10_nbb0xb2 10 More­land Commis­sion, “Prelim­in­ary Report,” 10. In 2018 big donors almost completely domin­ated New York’s state elec­tions. The top 100 donors gave more to candid­ates than all of the estim­ated 137,000 small donors combined.  foot­note11_i68igxk 11 Chisun Lee and Nirali Vyas, “Analysis: New York’s Big Donor Prob­lem & Why Small Donor Public Finan­cing Is an Effect­ive Solu­tion for Constitu­ents and Candid­ates,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, Janu­ary 28, 2019, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/analysis/nypf. Small dona­tions made up 5 percent of all money given to New York State candid­ates — a far smal­ler share than the 19 percent in small dona­tions at the federal level in 2018.  foot­note12_tztdj8d 12 Ibid Between a system that enables huge dona­tions to domin­ate, and processes that make it too hard to vote, it is little wonder that New York suffers one of the lowest civic engage­ment records in the coun­try.  foot­note13_wbc5xe4 13 Ibid.; Sean Morales-Doyle and Chisun Lee, “New York’s Worst-in-the-Coun­try Voting System,” The Atlantic, Septem­ber 13, 2018, https://www.theat­lantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/09/new-yorks-worst-in-the-coun­try-voting-system/570223/.

This is the year to enact small donor public finan­cing. Governor Cuomo’s current proposal closely resembles bills recently carried by now-Senate Major­ity Leader Andrea Stew­art-Cous­ins and by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, present­ing a genu­ine chance for change. A broad and diverse coali­tion of more than 200 groups has joined to press lawmakers to finally enact this power­ful demo­cracy reform that they have suppor­ted in name for years. The coali­tion includes major unions; prom­in­ent envir­on­mental, racial justice, and repro­duct­ive rights groups; polit­ic­ally active community organ­iz­a­tions; and busi­ness and civic lead­ers.  foot­note14_y6oxxty 14 The Fair Elec­tions for New York coali­tion includes Service Employ­ees Inter­na­tional Union Local 32BJ, Commu­nic­a­tions Work­ers of Amer­ica District 1 (all of New York State), Natural Resources Defense Coun­cil, Rever­end Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Planned Parent­hood Empire State Acts, Color of Change, Demos, End Citizens United, and Sierra Club. A full member­ship list and more details about Fair Elec­tions for New York can be found at https://faire­lec­tion­sny.org/about. NY LEAD, a bipar­tisan group of the state’s busi­ness, civic, phil­an­thropic, and cultural lead­ers, includes indi­vidu­als like Alec Bald­win, Dr. Hazel N. Dukes, Chris Hughes, Chris Jack­son, Andrew Rasiej, and Jonathan Soros, among others. A full member­ship list and more details about NY LEAD can be found at http://nylead.org/who-we-are/.

By taking this step, New York would lead the nation. It would be the first to enact a robust small donor match­ing program statewide. Passage would send a message to the nation that even in the age of Citizens United, trans­form­at­ive change to take back demo­cracy for every­day people is still possible.

End Notes

III. New York’s Big Donor–Dominated Politics

Since Citizens United, a small group of wealthy megadonors have come to domin­ate U.S. elec­tion finan­cing.  foot­note1_wuxlghy 1 Ian Vandewalker and Lawrence Norden, “Small Donors Still Aren’t as Import­ant as Wealthy Ones,” The Atlantic, Octo­ber 18, 2016, https://www.theat­lantic.com/polit­ics/archive/2016/10/campaign-finance-fundrais­ing-citizens-united/504425/. The prob­lem is espe­cially acute in New York State. Not only do big donors have a dispro­por­tion­ate impact on the polit­ical system, but small donors play virtu­ally no role at all. It’s a sharply tilted polit­ical system that gives a tiny number of big donors big power.

Today New York State has unusu­ally lax campaign finance rules. Indi­vidu­als can give as much as $69,700 to a candid­ate for statewide office, $19,300 to a state Senate candid­ate, and $9,400 to a state Assembly candid­ate in an elec­tion cycle. foot­note2_dxk9pzc 2 New York State Board of Elec­tions, “Contri­bu­tion Limits,” accessed Febru­ary 15, 2019, https://www.elec­tions.ny.gov/cfcon­tri­bu­tion­lim­its.html#Limits. (The federal cap on indi­vidual dona­tions is $5,600 per elec­tion cycle.)  foot­note3_6rjpn2r 3 Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion, “Contri­bu­tion Limits,” accessed Febru­ary 7, 2019, https://www.fec.gov/help-candid­ates-and-commit­tees/candid­ate-taking-receipts/contri­bu­tion-limits/. As a result, big donors almost completely domin­ated the 2018 New York State elec­tions, with small donors pushed to the side­lines:

  • The top 100 donors gave more to candid­ates than all of the estim­ated 137,000 small donors combined.  foot­note4_4ef1lxz 4 Chisun Lee and Nirali Vyas,“Analysis: New York’s Big Donor Prob­lem.” (This does not even include the millions of dollars contrib­uted by LLCs and corpor­a­tions, which would skew the data even further to the wealth­i­est donors.)
  • Small dona­tions amoun­ted to only 5 percent of all funds raised by candid­ates in New York State in the 2018 elec­tion cycle. This was the smal­lest source of fund­ing to candid­ates.  foot­note5_jyn1pc8 5 Ibid.
  • The major­ity of funds to candid­ates came from people or entit­ies who gave more than $10,000.  foot­note6_8z9phn6 6 Ibid.

The most recent avail­able stud­ies by the nonpar­tisan Campaign Finance Insti­tute show that New York consist­ently ranks among the worst states in the coun­try when it comes to small donor parti­cip­a­tion.  foot­note7_whh3yum 7 See Michael J. Malbin, Peter W. Brusoe, and Brendan Glavin, “Small Donors, Big Demo­cracy: New York City’s Match­ing Funds as a Model for the Nation and States,” Elec­tion Law Journal 11, no. 1 (2012): 14,http://www.cfinst.org/pdf/state/nyc-as-a-model_elj_as-published_march2012.pdf; Michael J. Malbin, “Sources of Funds in 2012 State Legis­lat­ive and Gubernat­orial Elec­tions,” Campaign Finance Insti­tute, Octo­ber 2014, http://www.cfinst.org/pdf/state/tables/States_12_table2.pdf; Michael J. Malbin, “Sources of Funds in 2014 State Legis­lat­ive and Gubernat­orial Elec­tions,” Campaign Finance Insti­tute, Octo­ber 2014, http://www.cfinst.org/pdf/state/tables/States_14_table2.pdf. At a time when diversity is rising as a social value, the campaign finance system ampli­fies the voices of only a few New York­ers. Big New York donors under­rep­res­ent the geographic, socioec‍o­nomic, and racial diversity of the state. In the 2018 New York State elec­tions:  foot­note8_4zmpr40 8 Chisun Lee and Nirali Vyas,“Analysis: New York’s Big Donor Prob­lem.”

  • Two-thirds of big donors (who gave $10,000 or more) came from just three afflu­ent counties: New York, Nassau, and Westchester.
  • Big donors typic­ally lived in neigh­bor­hoods that were whiter and wealth­ier and had more college-educated and employed people than neigh­bor­hoods where small donors lived.
  • Donors from out of state gave nearly three times more than all small-donor New York­ers combined. Close to 90 percent of that out-of-state money came in dona­tions of $1,000 or more.

Today’s big-money polit­ics, of course, tilts policy. Tax policy, envir­on­mental policy, real estate regu­la­tion, and more are shaped by the contours of the polit­ical money system. A massive study of federal policies over two decades found that the class of “economic elites” in the United States has “substan­tial” impact on govern­ment decisions, while “aver­age citizens have little or no inde­pend­ent influ­ence.”  foot­note9_jj6qsb8 9 Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Test­ing Theor­ies of Amer­ican Polit­ics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Aver­age Citizens,” Perspect­ives on Polit­ics 12, no. 3 (2014): 572, 575, https://scholar.prin­ceton.edu/sites/default/files/mgilens/files/gilens_and_page_2014_-test­ing_theor­ies_of_amer­ican_polit­ics.doc.pdf.

So, too, in New York. The More­land Commis­sion found 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.”  foot­note10_1n3xbeb 10 More­land Commis­sion, “Prelim­in­ary Report,” 34. It concluded, “When polit­ical power and access is so closely and dispro­por­tion­ately tied to large dona­tions, the major­ity of New York­ers are shut out of the polit­ical process.”  foot­note11_kt30cm8 11 Ibid.

Events of recent years have created a wide public percep­tion of corrup­tion in New York State. Governor Cuomo estab­lished the More­land Commis­sion in 2013 “in response to an epidemic of public corrup­tion that has infec­ted this State.”  foot­note12_a61o9ct 12 Ibid., 3. The group of more than two dozen ethics schol­ars, prosec­utors, defense attor­neys, federal offi­cials, and other civic lead­ers repor­ted:

In recent years, too many local and state elec­ted offi­cials, staff members, and party lead­ers have been indicted and convicted for offenses running the gamut of shame: bribery, embez­zle­ment, self-deal­ing, and fraud…One out of every eleven legis­lat­ors to leave office since 1999 has done so under the cloud of ethical or crim­inal viol­a­tions, and multiple sitting offi­cials are facing indict­ments on public corrup­tion charges.  foot­note13_8m1bz69 13 Ibid., 3–4.

The Commis­sion also cited numer­ous instances where moneyed interests were accused of offer­ing quid pro quo exchanges of dona­tions for favors.  foot­note14_0zwhy0m 14 Ibid., 33–34.

In the past decade, 19 New York State legis­lat­ors have been convicted on federal corrup­tion charges, giving New York one of the worst records in the nation. foot­note15_6qxeela 15 This number was reached by review­ing relev­ant press cover­age on corrup­tion convic­tions of New York State elec­ted offi­cials from 2008 to 2018. Sources included major New York news outlets such as the New York Times, New York Daily News, Rochester Demo­crat & Chron­icle, and others. , foot­note16_l6g4z13 16 Dan Clark, “Yes, New York Has More Corrupt Offi­cials Than Any Other State,” Poli­ti­Fact, Septem­ber 19, 2016, https://www.poli­ti­fact.com/new-york/state­ments/2016/sep/19/elaine-phil­lips/new-york-has-been-most-corrupt-state-decades/.   A 2015 analysis by FiveThir‍‍‍‍tyEight found that from 1976 to 2010, New York had more public offi­cials convicted on federal corrup­tion charges than any other state.  foot­note17_h4pkqyk 17 Harry Enten, “Rank­ing the States From Most to Least Corrupt,” FiveThirtyEight, Janu­ary 23, 2015, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/rank­ing-the-states-from-most-to-least-corrupt/.

New York­ers want better for their state. A 2018 poll found that 85 percent of New York­ers think govern­ment corrup­tion is either a “very seri­ous” or a “some­what seri­ous” prob­lem.  foot­note18_5r0p185 18 Quin­nipiac Univer­sity, “New York­ers Say Almost 4–1 Increase Abor­tion Rights, Quin­nipiac Univer­sity Poll Finds; But Few Say Abor­tion Is Most Import­ant in Gov Race,” Quin­nipiac Univer­sity Poll, July 19, 2018, https://poll.qu.edu/new-york-state/release-detail?Relea­seID=2556. And recent polls consist­ently show that large numbers of New York­ers want state office­hold­ers to reduce the influ­ence of money in polit­ics and end corrup­tion.  foot­note19_uo3fet5 19 See End Citizens United, “New York CD 11 Survey Results,” Septem­ber 4–5, 2018, https://endcit­izen­sunited.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/NY11-Results.pdf; Siena College, “Cuomo Begins ’14 in Strong Posi­tion; Ratings With Voters Up,” Siena College Research Insti­tute, Janu­ary 20, 2014, https://scri.siena.edu/2014/01/20/cuomo-begins-14-in-strong-posi­tion-ratings-with-voters-up/; Siena College, “Major­ity of Voters Think Silver Should Step Down as Speaker,” Siena College Research Insti­tute, June 13, 2013, https://scri.siena.edu/2013/06/13/major­ity-of-voters-think-silver-should-step-down-as-speaker/; Jefrey Pollock and Kieran Mahoney, “NY Friends of Demo­cracy Survey: Strong Support for Campaign Finance Reform,” Global Strategy Group/Mercury, May 6, 2013, https://faire­lec­tion­sny.org/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/MayPo­lling­Memo.pdf. Stronger campaign finance laws would help yield higher voter engage­ment. Public anger about corrup­tion helps dampen parti­cip­a­tion. The sense that only big donors have a say gives voters less reason to turn out and engage polit­ic­ally in other ways.

End Notes

IV. The Small Donor Solution

A small donor public finan­cing system offers the best chance to improve polit­ics in New York. It is based on and enhances — the success­ful system used in New York City and recently enacted in Suffolk County, and it has the follow­ing features.

1. $6-to-$1 Match of Small Dona­tions

Governor Cuomo’s current small donor public finan­cing proposal would provide $6 in public funds for every $1 of a dona­tion from a New York resid­ent up to $175, similar to New York City’s long­time model. foot­note1_7qd06kr 1 FY 2020 New York State Exec­ut­ive Budget: Good Govern­ment and Ethics Reform Article VII Legis­la­tion, Part B, § 14–206(2), (N.Y. 2019), https://www.budget.ny.gov/pubs/archive/fy20/exec/artvii/gger-artvii.pdf. Previ­ous bills in the Senate and Assembly have also provided a $6-to-$1 match, though the match­able amount has varied, up to $250.

A multiple match on small dona­tions, espe­cially combined with lower contri­bu­tion limits (discussed below), provides a strong incent­ive for candid­ates to spend more time rais­ing money from and talk­ing to their own constitu­ents.

Office­hold­ers who have campaigned in both New York City’s small donor public finan­cing program and the state’s private finan­cing system confirm this. Attor­ney General Leti­tia James, for instance, explained to the press that in running for statewide office, she needed to raise funds from the biggest donors to compete, in contrast to the way she could turn to constitu­ents for support when she ran under the city’s system. foot­note2_7rwn­le3 2 Russell Berman, “The Battle to Be Trump’s Javert in New York,” The Atlantic, August 6, 2018, https://www.theat­lantic.com/polit­ics/archive/2018/08/trump-teachout-attor­ney-general-new-york/566819/.

The Campaign Finance Insti­tute found that New York City’s small donor public finan­cing program “brought more low-dollar donors into the system,” lead­ing to a “substan­tial increase not only in the propor­tional role of small donors but in their abso­lute numbers per candid­ate.” foot­note3_gj9amdw 3 Michael J. Malbin, Peter W. Brusoe, and Brendan Glavin, “Small Donors, Big Demo­cracy,” 9. In essence the reform, by increas­ing the value of small donors’ modest contri­bu­tions, can trans­form candid­ates into agents of civic parti­cip­a­tion who bring more — and new — constitu­ents into the polit­ical process.

The table on page 5 makes plain the multi­plier effect of a $6-to-$1 match on contri­bu­tions up to $175 from New York­ers. Adjust­ing the match­able amount to $250, as in last year’s State Senate bill, does not change the essen­tial mech­an­isms of the program.

To ensure that small donor public finan­cing meets its inten­ded purpose — to encour­age candid­ates to seek reas­on­able support from constitu­ents rather than huge checks from wealthy interests or out-of-state donors certain restric­tions should apply to contri­bu­tions that are matched. For instance, as mentioned above, contri­bu­tions should be matched only up to a modest amount $175 or $250, as New York bills have specified. And only dona­tions from human beings — who could give to multiple candid­ates — resid­ing in New York State should be matched. The governor’s current bill and recent propos­als of the Legis­lature all contain such restric­tions on match­able contri­bu­tions.


Table 1: The value of New York­ers’ small dona­tions after a $6-to-$1 match, compared with other dona­tions under Governor Cuomo’s proposal.

small donor table

2. Reduced Contri­bu­tion Limits

New York State’s contri­bu­tion limits are unusu­ally high. Indi­vidu­als can give as much as $69,700 to a candid­ate for statewide office, $19,300 to a state Senate candid­ate, and $9,400 to a state Assembly candid­ate in an elec­tion cycle. foot­note4_2i56l2j 4 New York State Board of Elec­tions, “Contri­bu­tion Limits,” accessed Febru­ary 15, 2019, https://www.elec­tions.ny.gov/cfcon­tri­bu­tion­lim­its.html#Limits. These limits are so high that, accord­ing to the More­land Commis­sion, “they can scarcely be called limits at all.” foot­note5_5cdk­tgj 5 More­land Commis­sion, “Prelim­in­ary Report,” 35.

Any compre­hens­ive campaign finance proposal for Albany should decrease contri­bu­tion limits for all candid­ates. Candid­ates who wish to parti­cip­ate in small donor public finan­cing should, in exchange for receiv­ing public match­ing funds, be held to still lower contri­bu­tion limits. The reduced contri­bu­tion limits for parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates, coupled with a multiple match on small dona­tions, would further encour­age these candid­ates to focus their fundrais­ing efforts on constitu­ents who cannot afford to write the large checks that current limits allow.


Table 2: Limits on match­ing funds under Governor

Small donor table 2

3. A Cap on Public Funds, but No Limits on Total Fundrais­ing or Spend­ing by Candid­ates Who Parti­cip­ate in Public Finan­cing

Unlike some other plans, propos­als in Albany for small donor public finan­cing, includ­ing the governor’s current bill, have not set limits on how much parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates would be able to spend. The Bren­nan Center supports this choice, which acknow­ledges the percep­tion and occa­sional real­ity in the post–­Cit­izens United era that campaigns will have to contend with high spend­ing by inde­pend­ent expendit­ure groups such as super PACs.

Candid­ates should not have to skip the bene­fits of public finan­cing because they fear they will not be able to run a compet­it­ive campaign.

Parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates would be free to continue to raise funds privately, subject to indi­vidual contri­bu­tion limits, once they maxed out on public fund­ing. To limit the total expense of a public finan­cing system, Governor Cuomo’s bill, as with all recent propos­als, sets a maximum in avail­able match­ing funds for each type of office. foot­note6_i84c7ee 6 FY 2020 New York State Exec­ut­ive Budget: Good Govern­ment and Ethics Reform Article VII Legis­la­tion, Part B, § 14–205.

4. Qual­i­fy­ing Thresholds

To ensure that funds are not wasted on frivol­ous or uncom­pet­it­ive campaigns, candid­ates seek­ing to join a small donor public finan­cing program should first have to demon­strate a viable base of support by collect­ing a minimum number of small dona­tions in New York. Governor Cuomo’s bill includes a qual­i­fy­ing threshold of $650,000 in small dona­tions for gubernat­orial candid­ates, made up of at least 6,500 small contri­bu­tions (between $10 and $175) from New York resid­ents. Simil­arly, candid­ates for state Senate would have to raise $20,000, includ­ing at least 200 small contri­bu­tions, and candid­ates for State Assembly would have to collect $10,000, includ­ing at least 100 small contri­bu­tions. foot­note7_c1otaqb 7 Ibid., Part B, § 14–204(2).

Accord­ing to an analysis by the Campaign Finance Insti­tute, only 17 percent of gubernat­orial candid­ates in 2018 would have qual­i­fied for fund­ing. In the state Senate and Assembly, only 29 percent and 28 percent of candid­ates, respect­ively, would have qual­i­fied. foot­note8_lisok1i 8 These percent­ages are based on how much candid­ates had raised by Septem­ber 1, 2018, which the Campaign Finance Insti­tute’s analysis estim­ates would have been the approx­im­ate date by which candid­ates running in a general elec­tion would need to meet qual­i­fy­ing thresholds for public funds. See Michael J. Malbin and Brendan Glavin, “Small-Donor Match­ing Funds for New York State Elec­tions,” 14. Yet candid­ates can change those results, the analysis observes, by chan­ging their fundrais­ing strategies. Indeed, the point of small donor public finan­cing “is to give [candid­ates] a good reason to look for small donors from their districts.” That said, the thresholds should not be so inac­cess­ible that candid­ates do not even try to take advant­age of match­ing funds. The CFI report concludes that “the spon­sors would be well advised to revise the qual­i­fic­a­tion require­ments as they perfect a new bill.” foot­note9_ryhje9d 9 Ibid.

The New York City program’s thresholds may provide guid­ance for determ­in­ing the qual­i­fy­ing levels for state elec­tions. To receive the city’s match in the 2021 elec­tions, mayoral candid­ates must raise $250,000 from at least 1,000 small-dollar contrib­ut­ors resid­ing in New York City. City Coun­cil candid­ates must raise $5,000 from at least 75 small dollar contrib­ut­ors resid­ing in their districts. foot­note10_qw2qbkw 10 New York City Campaign Finance Board, “Limits & Thresholds: 2021 City­wide Elec­tions,” Candid­ate Services, accessed Janu­ary 22, 2019, https://www.nyccfb.info/candid­ate-services/limits-thresholds/2021/.

5. Trans­par­ency and Over­sight

A success­ful public finan­cing program requires fair and effi­cient over­sight, with ample support services so that candid­ates can parti­cip­ate without having to hire soph­ist­ic­ated compli­ance staff. This over­sight should include stand­ard internal processes to identify and resolve minor report­ing or admin­is­trat­ive issues, to ensure that only suffi­ciently seri­ous issues receive a formal compli­ance review, and to make sure that all candid­ates are treated equally. Also neces­sary is public disclos­ure of parti­cipants’ compli­ance with require­ments such as indi­vidual contri­bu­tion limits, to preserve the integ­rity of the program and the public’s trust.

This proposal improves on the New York City system and its enforce­ment meth­ods. Many legis­lat­ors in New York State are famil­iar with the Campaign Finance Board, the agency charged with over­sight of New York City’s public finan­cing system. Lessons learned from candid­ates’ exper­i­ence with the CFB have been incor­por­ated into current public finan­cing propos­als in New York State. Connecti­cut has a statewide public finan­cing program that also provides import­ant insight for how New York can achieve trans­par­ency and robust compli­ance in its public finan­cing program without unduly burden­ing candid­ates. Connecti­c­ut’s State Elec­tions Enforce­ment Commis­sion (SEEC) has developed a repu­ta­tion among candid­ates for being support­ive and commit­ted to minim­iz­ing undue admin­is­trat­ive burdens, and its public finan­cing program has only grown in popular­ity, with a record 335 candid­ates receiv­ing funds in 2018. foot­note11_6a503lw 11 Max Reiss, “Public Campaign Finan­cing Sees Record Year as Governor Picks Ignored It,” NBC Connecti­cut, Decem­ber 12, 2018, https://www.nbccon­necti­cut.com/news/local/Public-Campaign-Finan­cing-Sees-Record-Year-as-Governor-Picks-Ignored-It-502623861.html.

One signi­fic­ant decision Connecti­c­ut’s SEEC made to reduce the burden of compli­ance on candid­ates was to restrict postelec­tion audits to no more than 50 percent of all legis­lat­ive campaigns, selec­ted by lottery (weighted by recency of any past audit), although all statewide office campaigns do get audited. foot­note12_uztdmbn 12 Conn. Gen. Stat. § 9–7b(5)(B) (2017). Even though this lottery method is less burden­some to candid­ates than New York City’s approach of audit­ing 100 percent of campaigns, the SEEC reports that its system has been effect­ive at enfor­cing compli­ance. Governor Cuomo’s current proposal contains an audit proced­ure like Connecti­c­ut’s. foot­note13_6t5woyg 13 FY 2020 New York State Exec­ut­ive Budget: Good Govern­ment and Ethics Reform Article VII Legis­la­tion, Part B, § 14–209(1).

6. Ensur­ing an Adequate Fund­ing Stream

To serve the demo­cracy-enhan­cing interests of New York State and the need of parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates for suffi­cient funds to compete, the small donor public finan­cing program must receive adequate and reli­able fund­ing.

The Campaign Finance Insti­tute analyzed what it would cost to sustain the program proposed in Governor Cuomo’s current bill. Its most aggress­ive estim­ate which assumes that every statewide and legis­lat­ive candid­ate in 2018 would opt in and that a far greater number of donors would make match­able contri­bu­tions than is currently the case — is an annual cost of $38.6 million in disburse­ments and $20.9 million in admin­is­trat­ive costs. foot­note14_9zete7p 14 Michael J. Malbin and Brendan Glavin, “Small-Donor Match­ing Funds for New York State Elec­tions,” 12. The $59.5 million total amounts to less than 0.1 percent of the state’s $175 billion budget, or less than a penny a day per New Yorker.

The bill desig­nates fund­ing for the public finan­cing program from a $40 tax check-off ($80 for joint filers), the aban­doned prop­erty fund, contri­bu­tions from indi­vidu­als and organ­iz­a­tions, trans­fers from other funds or sources when author­ized by law, and backup fund­ing from the general fund. foot­note15_dwx91fm 15 FY 2020 New York State Exec­ut­ive Budget: Good Govern­ment and Ethics Reform Article VII Legis­la­tion, Part B, § 9. But as the More­land Commis­sion noted, once small donor public finan­cing begins to take effect and reduces govern­ment favors for power­ful donors, “the elim­in­a­tion of just one waste­ful tax expendit­ure or one unne­ces­sary spend­ing program could cover the full cost of the program.” foot­note16_8l701w3 16 More­land Commis­sion, “Prelim­in­ary Report,” 47.

Public Finan­cing in the Era of Super PACs

Would small donor public finan­cing matter in the age of super PACs and dark money? Yes. In fact, it is the only reform that can counter the corros­ive impact that such groups have had on our polit­ics, alter­ing a dynamic that has given an increas­ingly large voice to a tiny number of big donors at the expense of regu­lar constitu­ents.

Import­antly, none of the current propos­als caps what parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates can raise or spend. So if a candid­ate faces super PAC spend­ing, she can continue to raise money from private donors to counter inde­pend­ent expendit­ures even after she has reached the maximum public cap.

This reform does not pretend to take all private money out of the polit­ical system. The Supreme Court would not allow such a reform in any case. But it gives candid­ates a chance to forge a campaign fueled by constitu­ents while retain­ing the abil­ity to fight outside money without having to resort to dark money.

Already, New York State has taken key steps that limit the abil­ity of super PACs to have undue influ­ence on candid­ates. It was the first state to enact account­ab­il­ity meas­ures for online ads; it has also deman­ded increased disclos­ure and banned coordin­a­tion between candid­ates and super PACs. A small donor public finan­cing system would comple­ment these changes, allow­ing candid­ates to focus on small donors, ampli­fy­ing the voice of every­day constitu­ents, bring­ing greater diversity, and inspir­ing a much-needed renewal of public faith in govern­ment.

End Notes

The Benefits

1. Increas­ing the Voice of Small Donors

Public finan­cing would increase the import­ance of small donors. Apply­ing the $6-to-$1 match to dona­tions from New York­ers in 2018 state contests, as well as other aspects of Governor Cuomo’s public finan­cing proposal, we find a dramatic increase in the propor­tion of money candid­ates would have raised from small donors (see Figures 1, 2, and 3 on page 9).

Exper­i­ence in New York City and else­where shows that adopt­ing a small donor public finan­cing system can lead to candid­ates enga­ging more of their constitu­ents when fundrais­ing, and voters respond­ing by adding their voices with more small dona­tions. If this were to happen in New York State (as we expect), the percent­age of funds from 

small donors in future elec­tions would be even greater.

In a recent study, the Campaign Finance Insti­tute noted that while it is impossible to know how many more small donors would parti­cip­ate if the state adop­ted a public finan­cing program, a threefold increase in small donors is reas­on­able to expect. Figure 3 (on page 9) shows the impact that such an increase in small dona­tions would have had on the share of funds from small donors in 2018.

The Campaign Finance Insti­tute further broke down what this kind of increase in small donor giving would have meant in 2018: foot­note1_ce19kjj 1 Michael J. Malbin and Brendan Glavin, “Small-Donor Match­ing Funds for New York State Elec­tions,” 6–7, for find­ings that follow.

  • Assembly candid­ates would have raised more than four times as much from small donors, making small donors the single largest source of Assembly campaign funds.
  • Senate candid­ates would have raised six times as much from small donors.
  • Small donors would have been the biggest source of fund­ing for a major­ity of legis­lat­ive candid­ates.
  • Nearly every Assembly candid­ate and 91 percent of Senate candid­ates would have raised at least as much as they actu­ally did, if not more, if they had parti­cip­ated in a small donor public finan­cing system.

2. Allow­ing Candid­ates to Focus on Their Constitu­ents Instead of on Big Donors

One whispered concern among lawmakers about adopt­ing small donor public finan­cing is their assump­tion that it will serve to displace incum­bents. But as long­time users of the New York City program have noted, and as inde­pend­ent stud­ies have confirmed, the chief impact of the reform is to enable all candid­ates to shift their focus from deep-pock­eted donors to constitu­ents — not to advant­age any type of candid­ate over another. foot­note2_f27olrt 2 See Elisa­beth Genn, Sundeep Iyer, Michael Malbin, and Brendan Glavin, Donor Diversity Through Public Match­ing Funds, Bren­nan Center for Justice, May 14, 2012, 13, http://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/public­a­tions/Donor­Di­versi­tyRe­port_WEB.PDF; DeNora Geta­chew and Ava Mehta, Break­ing Down Barri­ers, 27; Michael J. Malbin, Peter W. Brusoe, and Brendan Glavin, “Small Donors, Big Demo­cracy,” 12–13.

Small donor public finan­cing enables people to win and stay in office by being more repres­ent­at­ive of constitu­ents than of wealthy donors. foot­note3_nqfelzm 3 Adam Skaggs and Fred Wertheimer, Empower­ing Small Donors in Federal Elec­tion­sem, Bren­nan Center for Justice, 2012, 14, http://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/public­a­tions/Small_donor_report_FINAL.pdf. Attor­ney General Leti­tia James said in a 2015 inter­view, when she was New York City’s Public Advoc­ate, that she “would not be in this posi­tion but for campaign finance reform and the support of work­ing-class people.” foot­note4_4n4k85o 4 Samar Khur­shid, “After Making History, James Seeks Change,” Gotham Gazetteem, March 22, 2015, http://www.gothamgaz­ette.com/govern­ment/5631-after-making-history-james-seeks-change. In a speech last year, she said that parti­cip­at­ing in small donor public finan­cing meant that “I’m free from the strangle­hold of …big donors demand­ing meet­ings and policy changes. Every New Yorker …know[s] they can come to my door, and their voices will be heard. Because every elec­ted offi­cial in this coun­try needs the free­dom to repres­ent the interest of Amer­ic­ans. And it is through public finan­cing that we will get one step closer to ensur­ing that our elec­ted repres­ent­at­ives are repres­ent­at­ives of our elect­or­ate.” foot­note5_llicfml 5 Leti­tia James, “Public Finan­cing” (speech, Unrig the System Summit, New Orleans, Louisi­ana, Febru­ary 2–4, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWxzf­B2L_ks.

This bene­fit applies to office­hold­ers as well as candid­ates. In Albany, a small donor public finan­cing system would enable elec­ted offi­cials to spend more time and energy on their constitu­ents. The More­land Commis­sion noted, “Instead of having to shape their offi­cial actions to the values and concerns of large donors, elec­ted offi­cials and candid­ates will be able to focus on ordin­ary citizens.” foot­note6_9yn24d2 6 More­land Commis­sion, “Prelim­in­ary Report,” 50.



Increas­ing the relat­ive import­ance of small donors also increases the diversity of view­points influ­en­cing office­hold­ers who court contrib­ut­ors. In the 2018 New York State elec­tions, small donors lived in neigh­bor­hoods that were far more repres­ent­at­ive of the real makeup of New York than big donors’ neigh­bor­hoods in terms of race, income, and educa­tion level. foot­note7_ukb7dkt 7 Chisun Lee and Nirali Vyas, “Analysis: New York’s Big Donor Prob­lem.” Small donors also hailed from every county in the state. foot­note8_eab7lrh 8 Ibid.

The prospect of ampli­fy­ing the power of constitu­ents like hers in Bush­wick, Brook­lyn, promp­ted Assembly­mem­ber Maritza Davila and community board member Gladys Puglla to make a power­ful case for enact­ing statewide small donor public finan­cing. In an op-ed in El Diar‍‍‍‍io last Decem­ber, they argued that Davil­a’s constitu­ents need more resources for public schools, afford­able hous­ing, and immig­rant protec­tion. The state’s inab­il­ity to produce results, they said, “in large part, is due to a system that allows the rich and large corpor­a­tions to give massive contri­bu­tions to protect their interests, without giving an oppor­tun­ity to work­ing class and low-income people to raise their voices.” foot­note9_bb619d8 9 Maritza Davila and Gladys Puglla, “Neces­it­amos Trans­formar la Demo­cra­cia en Nueva York,” El Diario, Decem­ber 19, 2018, https://eldiari­ony.com/2018/12/19/neces­it­amos-trans­formar-la-demo­cra­cia-en-nueva-york/. Further, they argued:

“Now, with a new Demo­cratic major­ity in the Senate for the first time in a decade, it is time for change… [We must trans­form our demo­cracy…[W]e must set up a public finance system in which the state would give six dollars for each dollar donated by a member of our community…which would bene­fit the candid­ate and assure that the candid­ate is look­ing for help from within our communit­ies — not just from the rich who can send large check­s…­Throughout our lives, despite all our efforts to organ­ize and push for laws that would bene­fit us, the voices of our community have not been heard suffi­ciently in Albany. Now we have the oppor­tun­ity to trans­form our state’s demo­cracy. We cannot lose.” foot­note10_p32574u 10 Ibid.

3. Chan­ging the Percep­tion of Cronyism and Corrup­tion in Albany

To address “an epidemic of public corrup­tion that has infec­ted this State,” the More­land Commis­sion in 2013 urged “[f]unda­mental reform” to the state’s campaign finance system “that promotes public trust and demo­cracy, changes our pay-to-pay polit­ical culture, and empowers ordin­ary New York­ers.” foot­note11_ihwssrs 11 More­land Commis­sion, “Prelim­in­ary Report,” 41. Its top recom­mend­a­tion: enact­ing small donor public finan­cing. The reform would work against the state’s culture of big-money cronyism by “lever­aging the power of ordin­ary indi­vidu­als and redu­cing the influ­ence of large donors and special interest money.” foot­note12_5wfr4y1 12 Ibid.

The success of small donor public finan­cing in New York City shows how trans­form­at­ive this reform could be for the state. Down­state, just three decades ago, cronyism and bribery ran rampant through City Hall. Campaign finance reform, centered on public finan­cing, was a major part of the city’s response. Although occa­sional donor­rel­ated scan­dals still arise, systemic corrup­tion among the city’s elec­ted offi­cials has by all accounts decreased substan­tially. In the past decade, while New York State racked up a troub­ling record of 19 federal corrup­tion convic­tions of legis­lat­ors, New York City saw only four. foot­note13_tpce7jq 13 These numbers were reached by review­ing relev­ant press cover­age on corrup­tion convic­tions of New York State’s and New York City’s elec­ted offi­cials and their govern­ment office staff members from 2008 to 2018. Sources include major New York news outlets such as the New York Times, New York Daily News, Rochester Demo­crat & Chron­icle, and others. Even consid­er­ing federal corrup­tion convic­tions in terms of respect­ive rates, New York State has seen a higher rate of convic­tion: 4.87 percent of unique New York State legis­lat­ors convicted, as compared with 3.67 percent of unique New York City legis­lat­ors, over the same time period. As a 2018 New Yor‍‍‍‍k magazine article put it, “it would be hard to find a cleaner, more dynamic, more progress­ive, and less corrupt big city in Amer­ica.” foot­note14_4gp7mb7 14 David Freed­lander, “Not That Long Ago New York City Really Was Run From a Smoke-Filled Back­room,” New Yorkem magazine, June 2018, http://nymag.com/intel­li­gen­cer/2018/06/when-new-york-city-really-was-run-from-a-smoke-filled-room.html.

Beyond redu­cing outright corrup­tion, the More­land Commis­sion noted, small donor public finan­cing would reduce the finan­cial waste­ful­ness of governance based on cronyism. It wrote that “the Commis­sion believes that redu­cing the role of big donors in finan­cing campaigns will reduce in turn the pres­sures donors place on our elec­ted offi­cials to provide targeted tax breaks for special interests and to spend public funds on pork barrel projects of doubt­ful public value.” foot­note15_8re06ph 15 More­land Commis­sion, “Prelim­in­ary Report,” 47. Once small donor public finan­cing begins to take effect at the state level, “the elim­in­a­tion of just one waste­ful tax expendit­ure or one unne­ces­sary spend­ing program could cover the full cost of the program.” foot­note16_yxjxrjx 16 Ibid.

News­pa­pers that have covered state corrup­tion scan­dals for years have called on Albany to use its new govern­ing major­ity to enact small donor public finan­cing as a part of compre­hens­ive campaign finance reform. Lawmakers must “approve public finan­cing of statewide elec­tions along the lines of New York City to help take special-interest money out of elec­tions or at least reduce its import­ance,” wrote the edit­or­ial board of Long Island’s The Island Now. foot­note17_zzethy6 17 Island Now Edit­or­ial Board, “Edit­or­ial: Put Up or Shut Up on Clean­ing Up Albany,” The Island Now, Novem­ber 13, 2018, https://theis­land­now.com/opin­ions-100/edit­or­ial-put-up-or-shut-up-on-clean­ing-up-albany/. “The short but urgent list includes campaign finance reforms that reduce the influ­ence of big money in polit­ics,” wrote the Albany Times Union’s edit­ors, who go on to suggest “a fair, honest and afford­able system of publicly-funded elec­tions.” foot­note18_ndm2xpp 18 Albany Times Union Edit­or­ial Board, “Edit­or­ial: All the Power in New York,” Albany Times Union, Novem­ber 10, 2018, https://www.timesunion.com/opin­ion/article/Edit­or­ial-All-the-power-in-New-York-13380635.php. The Times Her‍‍‍‍ald–Re­cor‍‍‍‍d urged legis­lat­ors “to reduce the tempta­tion and corrup­tion that money has on elec­tions follow­ing the example of New York City which is moving toward more public fund­ing of elec­tions.” foot­note19_xo78yiy 19 Times Herald-Record Edit­or­ial Board, “Edit­or­ial: Dems Have to Make a Differ­ence,” Times Herald-Record, Novem­ber 7, 2018, https://www.recor­don­line.com/news/20181107/edit­or­ial-dems-have-two-years-to-make-differ­ence. News­day called public finan­cing “prob­ably the best solu­tion” to the corros­ive influ­ence of big money on the state’s polit­ics. foot­note20_6w1ulja 20 News­day Edit­or­ial Board, “Break Up the Game Among Long Island Polit­ical Insiders,” News­day, March 3, 2018, https://www.news­day.com/opin­ion/edit­or­ial/gary-melius-oheka-castle-long-island-polit­ics-1.17047730. The New Yor‍‍‍‍k Times, which has long urged the legis­lature to adopt this trans­form­at­ive change, has called it “the most crucial reform of all.” foot­note21_eorjb2g 21 New York Times Edit­or­ial Board, “New York Reform = Public Finan­cing,” New York Times, April 19, 2013, .

End Notes

Conclusion: Excelsior

Albany’s new govern­ing major­ity took office this Janu­ary with the prom­ise of a new day. They would not do busi­ness as usual. They would move long-awaited progress­ive reforms swiftly to passage. The people of New York could count on them.

So far, the governor and legis­lature have been true to their word. Early voting passed quickly. So did the Gender Expres­sion Non-Discrim­in­a­tion Act, the Repro­duct­ive Health Act, and the DREAM Act. These are signi­fic­ant and even bold actions. But along with them has come the quiet message that not everything worthy can happen this year. Some changes may take patience. Lawmakers may not be ready for some of the biggest ones.

The urgency of achiev­ing small donor public finan­cing for New York State cannot be over­stated. That’s because, as Senate Elec­tions Commit­tee Chair Zellnor Myrie wrote in the Daily News in Janu­ary with Jonathan Westin,

exec­ut­ive director of New York Communit­ies for Change, “It does­n’t matter who’s in power. Where the power goes, the money follows.” foot­note1_hzu42cn 1 Zellnor Myrie and Jonathan Westin, “Fight for Lower Rents by Fixing Campaign Finance: Moving to a System That Prior­it­izes Small-Dollar Dona­tions Will Weaken the Influ­ence of the Real-Estate Lobby,” New York Daily News, Janu­ary 14, 2019, https://www.nydailynews.com/opin­ion/ny-oped-fight-for-lower-rents-by-fixing-campaign-finance-20190114-story.html. A new day for Albany could all too quickly become busi­ness as usual, they warned.

A cham­pion of tenants’ rights in his Brook­lyn district, Myrie noted how quickly real estate developers had switched their support in the final days of the elec­tion from their tradi­tional Repub­lican advoc­ates to the Senate Demo­crats who were clearly about to prevail. “If we do not change how elec­tions are financed in New York, we will never be able to truly win for tenants,” he and Westin wrote. “We need a small-donor public finan­cing system that…­makes it easier for elec­ted offi­cials to repres­ent the values of the people of New York.” foot­note2_52hyl8q 2 Ibid.

This year Albany has the rare chance to restore faith in demo­cracy for all New York­ers. That faith will rever­ber­ate across the nation. It is a chance too precious to let slip away.

End Notes