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Op-ed column: Last chance this year for meaningful campaign finance reform

Sunday, May 20, 2012
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Opportunities for reform in New York state come and go. Usually they go.

The big reform issues for every legislative session, past, present and future, are in three areas: ethics, redistricting and campaign finance.

We are nearing the end of a legislative season with much talk about major reforms from state leaders, but lamentably little in the way of really effective reform on either of the first two issues. No big surprise.

Past and present governors and legislative leaders have never really had any incentive to do more than cosmetic reforms. This year, only campaign finance reform is still on the table in Albany.

Cynics may be justified in doubting the seriousness of their reform intentions. I am slightly more optimistic, though, because each of the “Big Three,” whatever critics might say about any single one of them, are very, very smart guys. And smart people, even though everyone sometimes gets too involved in the nitty-gritty of details and petty politics, will from time to time demonstrate the knack of seeing past short-term priorities to glimpse the real long-term interests.

That’s what makes smart people smart. Actually acting on long-term interests is the difference between being smart and wise.

Wild, wild west

Few states need major campaign finance changes more than New York. As a Daily News editorial recently noted of New York state, “with sky-high contribution limits, yawning loopholes, anything-goes spending rules and laughable enforcement, it’s the Wild West of political cash.”

Candidates for statewide office can receive up to $60,800 from a single donor. Candidates can also use their campaign coffers as personal debit cards for personal expenses, as long as they write them up as campaign expenses. Would you believe pool covers have been claimed as a legitimate campaign expense? The Brennan Center for Social Justice at the New York University School of Law has documented Albany legislators using campaign funds for those pool covers, and for such items as pet food and country club fees. How about $70,000 on a state senator’s car written off as a campaign expense? You bet it happens. These are well-documented abuses of the current system.

This kind of behavior is possible only because New York’s campaign finance laws are lax. And they are lax because lawmakers don’t willingly reform what brings in money for them. It is indeed naïve to expect them to eliminate loopholes in our lax campaign finance laws just on ethical principles.

Two kinds of public campaign financing systems are possible: a matching funds system in which candidates raise limited amounts of private money, which is then matched by public dollars; and a publicly funded system, such as one in Connecticut in which a candidate attracts small contributions to qualify for public money. Under this second system, when a candidate receives public money, the candidate may no longer receive private contributions.

Neither system is perfect, but it is better than what now exists. Any basic system needs to include these provisions to eliminate the abuses that now riddle the current lax methods of campaign finance in New York:

• Reducing contribution limits from $60,800 to $1,000 so average citizens have a chance to participate in fairly financed elections on an equal basis with wealthy individuals and corporations.

• Ending state politicians’ housekeeping accounts, a big loophole which allows candidates to raise unlimited amounts of cash and keep the source secret until after an election.

• Establishing a serious campaign finance overseer empowered to be more effective than the inadequate Board of Elections.

• Requiring full disclosure of all campaign donations before elections.

These provisions would be a bare minimum for acceptable reform. But waiting for this to happen is like waiting for crows to stop raiding an open grain silo. It isn’t going to happen.

Institutional change

In order to limit the influence of special interests, as well as to put the crimps on cronyism in Albany, citizens need to provide an added incentive to legislators to curb their own corrupt system. Groups such as the coalition New York Leadership for Accountable Government is admirable in their quixotic push for campaign finance legislation, but …

The cynics may be right: Serious campaign finance reform won’t happen because a tight system of campaign financing in New York state would take money out of the coffers and pockets of the very people who must legislate the change.

Still, I see some hope just because there is so much political smarts among the Triumvirate of Three currently reigning in Albany. Moving together beyond short-term considerations, they now have a chance to control the form of serious reform. They

may be wise enough to realize that future circumstances might change in a way that campaign finance reform is forced on them. It is smart to recognize this, and it would be wise to do something now.

If nothing is done again — in the next few weeks — except mere talk of campaign finance reform, it is high time for a new coalition, perhaps that well-intentioned New York Leadership for Accountable Government, to switch its emphasis from forcing change through direct legislative action. It will be time instead to work vigorously to establish a citizen referendum system.

The failure of elected state representatives to enact major reforms in the interest of clean government points toward the necessity of a public referendum provision in the state. As ever, the question before all respon-sible groups must be first and foremost, “What is in the public interest?”

Our Albany lawmakers won’t like the idea. It goes way beyond their comfort zone.

Watch how fast campaign finance reform happens as soon as a movement toward citizen referendum rises as a serious threat to the interests of lawmakers. Only then will meaningful reform happen in New York.

L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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