Campaign finance reform, long-promised but never enacted, is starting to take shape in New York. As part of this year’s budget agreement, Governor Cuomo and the legislative majorities agreed to establish a Commission to create a voluntary system of public financing of elections. In and of itself, the creation of a commission was not new; there have been other blue-ribbon panels that have examined the issue. What was new was that the Commission’s recommendations would have the force of law when approved by December 1st of this year.
This week, the Commission is holding the first of five public hearings on the issue. Sounds promising. But there are some early signs of trouble that could undermine the Commission’s work. The Commission apparently has no resources – it doesn’t even have its own website for example – and has no staff. The invitations to testify were sent from individual commissioners’ email addresses.
Given the paucity of resources, how should the Commission best achieve its goals? Let’s start by examining why the system is needed in the first place.
According to a new report issued by the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), currently state legislators run for office relying on private campaign contributions. Overwhelmingly the sources of that money are typically powerful and wealthy interests. The report found that organized interests, businesses, and individuals contributing more than $200, represented roughly 90 percent of the money raised by the winners of state Senate and Assembly elections. The biggest category of contributors were political action committees and limited liability companies – both of which usually have business before the government.
Such a system, one in which the bulk of the money paying for the campaigns of state candidates comes from parties with a vested interest in legislative outcomes, creates an inherent conflict of interest. Lawmakers rely on campaign funds from interest groups and then meet with their lobbyists who are asking for favors. Sometimes those favors result in scandals and corruption.
That’s why previous commissions examining New York State’s campaign financing system have been harshly critical. One commission in the 1980s called New York’s campaign financing system a “disgrace” and an “embarrassment.”
Thirty years ago when then-Governor Mario Cuomo and state legislators could not agree on reforms, the 1980s commission scolded state leaders for failing to act, charging that “Instead partisan, personal and vested interests have been allowed to come before larger public interests.” That same commission, on the other hand, congratulated New York City public officials who had worked to create a voluntary system of public financing for candidates running in City elections.
A voluntary campaign financing system, that commission believed, was an important reform that could provide the resources for candidates – but without attaching the strings that all too often come when private contributions are donated by interest groups. Thus, a public financing system could both reduce the influence of powerful interest groups and reduce the risk of political corruption.
Three decades later, the New York City system has expanded and evolved into a model for the nation. Indeed, in the 2018 City election, voters overwhelmingly voted to approve a referendum proposal that further strengthened the system and City voters agreed to additional tax dollars being used to fund the program.
So what should the new Commission, with a mandate to establish a voluntary system of public financing for state government, do?
Since the new Commission appears to have little or no resources and the deadline for finalizing its plan is December 1st, the first step should be to embrace the successful, three-decade old program already operating in the state of New York.
The program may need some tweaks to adapt it to state elections, but it is road tested. By advancing that program as its starting point, the debate over the next 90 days would be focused on tweaks that may be necessary in order to scale up a citywide program – in a municipality that accounts for nearly half of the state’s population – to one that covers all state offices.
With fewer than 90 days until their plan is due, it makes little sense for the Commission to waste time contemplating the universe of possible systems or focus on unnecessary election law changes. By putting out the New York City program as its starting point, the Commission would have the benefit of 30 years of experience and could focus on details needed to scale it up to a statewide system.
The clock is ticking. The Commission has a lot of work to do; New Yorkers must hope that they attack their responsibilities with a smart strategy based on success.