New York State has the best chance in decades of passing a Fair Elections Law and the greatest urgency since the U.S. Supreme Court unleashed the era of Citizens United.
During the next 100 days until the New York State Legislature adjourns in June, advocates for campaign finance reform in New York State are marshaling a massive push for reforms that include a public financing mechanism (similar to what New York City already has in place), reducing contribution limits and tightening loopholes that corporate donors use to vastly exceed what individuals are allowed to contribute, tightening disclosure requirements, and putting teeth in enforcement which has been virtually nonexistent.
There have been fair elections proposals for decades, but advocates are hoping the “stars are aligned” for passage this year: Governor Andrew Cuomo has stated he is in favor, the public has become aware and concerned that Citizens United has poisoned the political process; New Yorkers’ progressive mo-jo may have been reawakened by the state’s adoption of gay marriage and gun control.
What is more, even the most idealistic elected representatives have become jaded when they realize that the intense need to appease big money interests conflicts with their dream of accomplishing great things for their communities. There are signs that even lobbyists and corporations have reached a tipping point because they are just tired of being shaken down for ever-higher donations, as the cost of mounting campaigns rises ever higher.
And if anyone needed further proof of a corrupt and broken system, they only have to look at the scandal of State Senator Malcolm Smith, a City Councilmember and several others, including Republican committee chairmen and the Spring Valley mayor, being arrested for bribery among other offenses related to the scheme of Smith, a Democrat, to become the Republican candidate for New York City mayor.
The federal prosecutor in charge of the case described the “show-me-the-money culture [that] seems to pervade every level of New York government.”
“But the problem goes much deeper than bribes,” said Bill Lipton of the Working Family Party, one of the groups coalescing around Fair Elections. “It’s the legalized corruption of campaign contributions that really poisons our system.
“We can’t afford to let New York be bought by the highest bidder.”
Councilmember Halloran in a wiretapped conversation, reportedly stated, “That’s politics, that’s politics, it’s all about how much. Not about whether or will, it’s about how much, and that’s our politicians in New York, they’re all like that, all like that. And they get like that because of the drive that the money does for everything else. You can’t do anything without the f***ing money.”
Lipton said, “Albany’s culture promotes the view that money should mean power. But it’s got to stop. We need a system that’s one person, one vote — not one dollar, one vote.
“There will surely be calls for the arrested officials to resign. But that won’t solve the real problem here. We must end the corrupting influence of money in politics, once and for all.
“There’s a real chance to change the system this year. For years, Working Families and our allies have been organizing hard for the public financing of elections. Speaker Silver has been a forceful advocate for reforming this broken system for more than twenty years. Now, two of the Senate’s three caucus leaders support the plan as well. And crucially, Gov. Cuomo is on the record in support as well.
“That should be enough support to get it done. And this latest scandal should be enough proof that we need to change the system. Now,” he said, urging people to sign a petition.
The advantages of publicly financed elections are huge – by incentivizing candidates to seek small donations (under $250 which would be eligible for a match, perhaps $6 for every $1), they will actually go out to the people rather than spend all their time in big-donor fundraisers. And if individual voters feel they have a connection to a campaign, they will participate more fully.
The cost of public financing would amount to $30-$40 million – or about $2 per New Yorker.
These points were presented recently at a Campaign Finance Reform Forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Port Washington-Manhasset. held at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock. Carol Mellor of the League of Women Voters of New York State and Ian Vanderwalker of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice laid out the case for election reform and public financing and Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel, and Senator Jack Martins gave the legislators’ perspective.
The notion of campaign financing reform almost seems quaint in the era of Citizens United, which has allowed corporations and special interests to funnel unlimited amounts of cash to help a chosen candidate win or defeat (destroy) an opponent. Indeed, the most persuasive argument against public financing is that the money, like water, will find other ways to flow into campaigns. But at least public financing, coupled with disclosure, gives a fighting chance to a hopeful candidate who is not in the pocket of some special interest, does not have a personal fortune or who is not a Party favorite.
New York City’s experience is illustrative and educational: what they find is that there is not only more participation by voters in the process, but candidates who come forward are more diverse.
“Campaign finance reform is commonly thought to be limited to where money from, where it goes, but we hope to show that if you can change the way elections are run, are financed, you actually can change the way government functions,” says Carol Mellor, a director of the NYS League of Women Voters, who authored a white paper, “The Case for Campaign Finance Reform in New York State.”
“Campaigns are driven by communication; communication costs money; to be elected, candidates must get money for communication from somewhere, and source of money drives the government, its agenda – that’s the problem.
“It’s reasonable to conclude that if a campaign is paid for by a particular person or interest that representative will be paying special attention – that’s not corruption, it’s human nature – but it brings a corrupting influence into government.”
Perhaps the place to start in thinking about campaign finance reform is to ask what we want from government?
“We want representatives who have to time to do their jobs; we want a government responsive to our needs; we want more people participating in the electoral process, all of these are answered by publicly financed campaigns, which cut the umbilical cord to corporations and special interests,” Mellor says. “We want to minimize the effects of big money, we want a system that does not encourage corruption, we want more diverse candidates.”
The US Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, though, means that the only kind of campaign finance a Fair Elections law can limit or ban is in the context of public financing.
But there are other things that can be done as well: enforce existing law, adjust existing contribution limits on what people, organizations and corporations can give directly to campaigns; and require disclosure of where the money is coming from, who is funding the organization and who s paying for the ad, and adopting public financing mechanism.
Existing New York State law, though, falls woefully short, Mellor points out.
Existing law limits contributions on individuals and corporations, but the limits are sky high and loopholes abound.
For example, the current limit on contributions for the Governor is $60,800, which compares to the $5000 limit an individual can make to a Presidential candidate and $8579 for the national average for Gubernatorial candidate (NYS is the highest). You can contribute $16,800 to a State Senate candidate (national average is $4093); and $8200 for an Assembly candidate ($3632 is the national average).
Current law prohibits personal use of campaign funds – but the rules are so vague that use of campaign funds for personal expenditures is rampant.
New York State apparently has no “Pay to Play” restrictions and the rules regarding contributions to “housekeeping accounts” are so vague as to be unenforceable, providing another avenue for money to flow into campaigns.
Mellor says that lobbyists working for firms contributed nearly 70,000 times more dollars per capita as ordinary citizens; NYPIRG reported that lobbying firms gave $1.8 million to state-level candidates and party committees in 2011.
“It’s not just industry,” Mellor says, “but multi-billionaire Mayor Bloomberg, who as an individual is limited to can give $150,000 aggregate to all; gave over $1 million to one political party that gave him a line.”
New York State has an enforcement body, the State election board, but it is designed in such a way as to be impotent. It is a body of four members: two Republicans, two Democrats, with no mechanism to break a deadlock.
“That’s further proof there is no real desire to make sure campaigns are clean: the board had one investigator who retired but because there is a freeze on hiring, there is no investigator investigating campaign finance law.
“NYPRG every year writes letter to board of elections, reporting that it discovered scores and scores of apparent violations – but nothing ever happens.
“Every year hundreds of donors give more money than allowed by state law. Scores of candidates fail to disclose the identity of donors in the run up to election.”
There is no meaningful limit on contributions from corporations. The law allows a corporation to give $5000 to all candidates in a year, but each of a corporation’s subsidiaries can also give $5000, and all the sub-subsidiaries can give $5000 each as well.
Met Life, for example, has 81 subsidiaries, and each can give $5000, so one corporation effectively can give $405,000.
Koch Industries has 12 subsidiaries and some of these subsidiaries have 59 sub-subsidiaries or LLCs – so can technically donate $8 million.
Meanwhile, an LLC, which is a corporation, for some inexplicable reason is not deemed a corporation for the purpose of being under the corporate limitations on campaign contributions, but rather, are entitled to the individual limit of $150,000 in a campaign cycle.
The League’s position is that to have effective campaign finance law:
Lower contribution limits and close loopholes
Restrict or ban housekeeping accounts
Clarify restrictions on personal use
Increase disclosure and transparency
Put in place independent and effective enforcement (a nonpartisan body, adequately financed with the power to conduct independent audits)
Raise penalties to deter compliance
The League is also advocating a public financing mechanism that incentives small donations which are matched, say, six to one, which would decrease the influence of big money, increase participation of small donors, increase voter participation and create more diverse candidate pool.
Ian Vanderwalker of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice presented data to demonstrate that a public finance mechanism can achieve these goals:
There would be the same money spent, but small donors would represent 30% of total funding up from 6%; donations of $251-999 would represent 13%, up from 5%; $1000+ would represent 19% instead of 31%; nonparty, non-individual donations would represent 30% (down from 47%), and party funds would represent 9% instead of 11%.
“Special interests and small contributors become equalized,” Vanderwalker says. “The small, individual donor can become powerful if New York State adopted fair elections”
Here’s how it works in New York City’s Public Financing Program: Participation is voluntary for candidates; candidates qualify by raising a certain amount from a large number of contributors in the district (a mayoral candidate has to raise $250,000 from 1000 contributors); public funds are dispersed through matching grant that multiply the impact of small donations from constituents; candidates must agree to spending limits, financial disclosures and debates.
He noted that the nonparticipating candidate received the vast majority of donations from $1000+ individual donors (only 15% from smallest, 16% from 251-999).
In contrast, the participating candidate received 64% of funding from donations from $1 to $250 (which were matched under the program, $6 to $1); 13% of funding came from donations of $251-$999; 16% of funding came from donations of $1000+ 16%.
“The Public Finance Option changes who candidates are dependent upon for campaign cash,”Vanderwalker says. “It rewards grassroots organizing – so if a candidate goes to a barbershop, he can be fundraising and campaigning at same time. Then the donors also become more participant, more active in the campaign.
“It’s not about unseating incumbents, but that incumbents face a challenger who can afford to get their message out making sure that people don’t necessarily run unopposed – to run a viable campaign and raise issues,” he adds.
That having been said, a statewide matching grant program is estimated to cost between $25-$40 million a year.
“That’s 0.03% of the state’s $132.6 billion budget. $2 a year per New Yorker is a sliver of the state’s budget. $40 million isn’t no money, but it’s not a great deal.”
“Here’s why it is worth $40 million: Democracy costs money. You can’t have democracy without elections – to pay poll workers, print ballots, voter education. We already pay to have representatives in our government – legislator salaries, support staff, office buildings. Fair elections is the same – it enables everyone to participate, not only those who can afford to give the most,” Mellor says.
Both our elected representatives took offense at Mellor’s characterization that the time they spend with a constituent, lobbyist, or big corporate donor is directly correlated to who they are and what they gave. Both said they do not “keep records.”
But the realities of the aggregate are hard to ignore. There is ample evidence of legislation actually crafted by lobbyists and passed whole. Among the myriad examples: nearly two dozen states passed Stand Your Ground Laws written by ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council) and the NRA; ALEC, which does extensive lobbying and orchestrates “face time” with state legislators (predominantly Republicans), also wrote the Voter ID laws and anti-abortion laws that have swept the nation. On a federal level, the banks wrote the Bankruptcy Act and Big Pharma wrote the Prescription D Coverage plan that Bush signed.
Meanwhile, you can list scores of policies that are popular but are not implemented – at the national level you can point to gun violence prevention, global warming, renewable energy, eliminating tax loopholes to reduce the national debt as opposed to slashing the social safety net, and on and on and on – all that enjoy vast majorities (even 90%) of the people, but are blocked by special interests. In New York State, big issues like hydrofracking, casino gambling, tenants rights and yes, microstamping.
But Republicans – the party of Big Money interests which has benefitted the most from big donors – are already taking a stand, couched in carefully crafted populist language, to block campaign finance reform in New York.
Listen to how State Senator Jack Martins basically announced he would oppose campaign finance reform: “I believe in campaign finance reform. Removing undo influences from politics, elected office is something we should embrace.” But then he mouthed the Republican Talking Point from Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos that the state can ill-afford allocating funds for public financing.
“If we spend $25-40 million out of public coffers for campaign finance, what are we going to take it from, how will we raise it, because we don’t have infinite system. If we have $40 million lying around, I would prefer it be spent on education, helping people with special needs. If we prioritize, that’s where I would spend it. I think we can achieve both – I don’t think we need publicly financed elections to have fair elections – lower the limits, better enforcement, but allocation of public funds is concern.
“$25-40 million is a concern – I think need we need to be careful – it is predicated on people contributing as they did in 2010 – an aggregate number. The reality is if somebody will have a match up to a certain figure, it will encourage people to donate under the limit to [qualify for] the match – so there will be less people contributing more and more contributing less I have heard estimates [of the public match] as high as $200 million.
“We need to set priorities,” Martins says. “If we would spend $70-100 million, I would rather allocate this for education, etc. than my campaign or my colleagues’.
“Let’s talk about making the process more democratic, encourage more to reach out for smaller donors.
“Public finance, especially today when we are struggling and have limited resources, the idea of taking that much money and throwing to publicly financed elections, I have reservations. Maybe when the economy returns,” he said.
Except the economy never “returns.”
He also protested the characterization that lawmakers apportion their time in rough proportion to the size of contributions, “I don’t keep track of who gives money to campaigns – don’t have a running list – don’t schedule appointments based on who made donations or give time based on how much. That simply doesn’t happen…..The last thing we would do is go to lunch, dinner or golfing with any contributor for any number of reasons, specifically the ethics laws that prohibits.”
Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel was equally offended by the characterization of access proportionate to the size of campaign donations. “I felt dirty watching [the presentation]. The notion that ‘You’ll change,’ feeds the idea that politicians are all corrupt, that their priority is all about running, raising money…”
And she adds, if someone asked her, a stalwart advocate for gun control and environmental protection, “How much money would you take from the NRA to vote against gun control? From oil and gas to vote for fracking? The answer is ‘No amount of money’.”
Notably, Schimel is a co-sponsor of the Fair Elections bill under consideration.
Meanwhile, a coalition of groups under the umbrella Fair Elections for New York is amassing an all-out 100 day strategy to marshal an overwhelming show of support to “demand a change in status quo and pass campaign finance reform.”
Visit www.fairelectionsny.org to participate.
Coalition outlines battle strategy for winning fair elections reform in New York
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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