Guest Blogger Series: Five Ideas for Campaign Finance Reform (III)

October 10, 2012

The following post is the third of four contributions from our guest bloggers. Adam Skaggs is Senior Counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at N.Y.U. School of Law. Among states that put any limits on the size of contributions individuals and corporations can give to elected officials, New York has the highest limits.  As a result, corporations and individuals can give politicians in New York State more campaign cash than is legal in almost every other state.  A wealthy donor with an interest in Albany policy-making can give a candidate for New York governor more than twenty times what she could legally contribute to the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.  Given these sky-high limits, it’s no surprise that officials in Albany are disproportionately dependent on mega-donors to finance their campaigns.  It’s equally unsurprising that we’ve developed a campaign finance system in which Albany officials are more concerned about what matters to their deep-pocketed benefactors than they are about the public interest. There’s no shortage of examples of how our state government has devolved into a pay-to-play system that puts government on the auction block.  Given the high cost of living in the Empire State, for example, working New Yorkers support increasing the state’s minimum wage above the federal limit.  But a group of corporations, groups and lobbyists opposed to an increase dumped about $400,000 in contributions to state lawmakers to ensure the reform agenda stalled.  Another heated issue is “hydrofracking.”  Backers say fracking will create needed jobs, but critics say it will unleash severe environmental damage.  With stakes so high, one would hope that the policy decisions would be made on the merits—but the natural gas industry is surely hoping the $1.34 million it has given to state lawmakers and political parties will help its cause. Or take the push to legalize gambling in New York:  as New York Common Cause has reported, the gambling industry has bet big by spending millions on contributions and lobbying.  Gambling interests have invested more than half of what the banking and financial sector spends, even though the financial sector is hundreds of times larger than the gaming industry.  The pace of gaming industry spending is peaking as decisions on racing franchises and a casino amendment approach since—whether it’s gambling or any other issue—as the Daily News reports, “spending spikes whenever Albany comes to a decision point.” We can’t expect Albany to work for average New Yorkers instead of big donors if our elected officials continue depending on a tiny slice of wealthy contributors and ignoring regular voters.  Fortunately, the blueprint for changing this equation can be found in New York City, where an experiment unfolding over the last two decades points the way to reform. In response to widespread corruption and a series of campaign finance scandals, New York City adopted a small donor matching system to bring fair and clean elections to the Big Apple.  Under the system—which is completely voluntary—small donations are multiplied through the use of public matching funds, so a $25, $50, or $100 dollar donation from a voter of modest means has real value to a candidate.  The benefits of public financing have been impressive.  The small donor matching system supercharges small contributions from regular New Yorkers, and transforms candidates into agents of civic participation who fuse fundraising with voter outreach.  The system has had an impressive record of success, not only increasing the absolute number of voters who contribute to campaigns, but dramatically increasing the diversity of the communities where campaign dollars come from, and mobilizing communities often ignored by traditionally funded candidates.  It has allowed candidates without big bank accounts (or connections to wealthy backers) to run competitive campaigns, increasing political competition. Adopting a small donor empowerment program like New York City’s for statewide elections will create the opportunity for an army of small donors to serve as a counterweight for the tiny slice of the electorate that now funds our elections.  To be sure, additional reforms are needed—including robust disclosure; meaningful contribution limits for candidates; restrictions on corporate giving; and effective, non-partisan enforcement.  Among all these necessary reforms, however, adopting a small donor matching system of public funding is the game-changer Albany desperately needs.  It will bring us government of, by, and for the many—not the money. The views, opinions and positions expressed within this guest post are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Genova Burns.  This post has been published as provided by the author, without any substantive edits; Genova Burns makes no representations of any kind as to the content of this post.         

Tags: New York CityNew York State