Barbara Bartoletti estimates she has been advocating for government reform for decades.
But she believes this could be the year.
“I’ve been dealing with campaign finance reform for three decades,” said Bartoletti, who serves as legislative director for the League of Women Voters of New York State, “but one difference this year is Gov. Cuomo’s popularity and his ability to use the bully pulpit. We think this will be the legislative session that provides the momentum.”
Contained within Cuomo’s State of the State speech was a call for campaign finance and election administration reform. His NY Rising book, released in conjunction with the speech, outlines a package of proposals aimed at making state government more transparent, increasing voter participation and making elections more competitive.
The book outlines “the lack of trust in government” as a significant problem, as well as the outsized influence of large donors and special interests in campaigns. Enacting these types of reforms has long been a challenge in a state often derided for its dysfunctional and opaque governmental workings.
“Rules reform is really difficult, because it directly affects the people who make the laws,” Bartoletti said. “They do not like messing with how they got elected and how they stay elected.”
But Cuomo, she said, “has given us the impression that this is a priority.”
“We hope that this will be the year these proposals pass,” said Bill Mahoney, research coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “[Cuomo] has brought them up in the past, but they have not gone anywhere.”
The reforms will be most effective if they are passed and implemented in concert, he said.
Perhaps the most significant government reform proposal is a measure that would create a system of public financing for state elections.
The model for this system would be New York City’s Campaign Finance Program, which leverages contributions raised from city residents to provide public, matching funds for candidates; the program matches each dollar a city resident gives, up to $175 per contributor, with $6 in public funds, for a maximum of $1,050 in public funds per contributor.
Participation in the Campaign Finance Program is not mandatory, and there are no spending limits for those who do participate.
“In New York City, this model of public financing has achieved the desired results,” said Michael Malbin, a political science professor at the University at Albany and head of the Washington-based Campaign Finance Institute.
Research has shown New York state’s political candidates rely far more on large donors than candidates who run in states or cities with publicly financed elections, said Malbin, who co-authored a 2012 paper on New York City’s public financing system, “Small Donors, Big Democracy: New York City’s Matching Funds as a Model for the Nation and States.”
Right now, candidates in New York state get less than 10 percent of their campaign money from small donors, Malbin said, but if a system of public financing were implemented, that percentage would rise to about 50 percent.
Malbin also said one of his studies found that candidates for the state Assembly campaign differently than candidates for the New York City Council. He said City Council candidates are more likely to meet with a more diverse group of donors and seek out middle-class voters because they are not as dependent on big donors to get elected.
“It’s desirable to have a system in which candidates have a stronger incentive to get more people involved as donors and volunteers,” Malbin said. “Using [a system of public financing], you’re giving candidates a way to engage more people and protect against outside forces.”
Ian Vandewalker, counsel in the New York City-based Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, said public financing “will increase the voice of New Yorkers and lessen the culture of corruption that currently reigns in Albany, but it needs to be part of a package of reforms that increases disclosure and lowers campaign limits.”
In one study, the Campaign Finance Institute found that in 2006, New York state had the lowest percentage of adults contributing money to political campaigns and in 2010, it had the fourth lowest percentage, better only than Florida, Utah and California. Another study found that in 2012, New York’s candidates for state Legislature raised 76 percent of their money from donors who gave them $1,000 or more and from interest groups. Only 8 percent came from small donors — those who gave $250 or less.
Last year, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Democratic leader John Sampson introduced bills that would create a publicly financed election system, but they did not pass. The legislation would have imposed $2,000 contribution limits on any candidate for state office unless that candidate was challenged in a primary and running in the general election; then the contribution limit would be $2,000 per election, or $4,000 combined.
The governor also called on the state to lower New York’s contribution limits, which are higher than federal limits and most other states, though he did not specify an amount.
According to the League of Women Voters, the $16,800 contribution limit for individuals donating to candidates for the New York state Senate is four times greater than the national average of $4,003, and the New York state Assembly limit of $8,200 is more than twice as high as the national average of $3,632. Corporations can make donations of up to $5,000 to candidates or political parties, but corporate subsidiaries are treated as individuals under the law and can donate more money.
“New York state government has been widely discredited for its lax campaign finance restrictions and the dominance of large donors and special interests in campaigns,” the NY Rising book states.
“Often big issues are decided by which side donates the most money,” he said.
The governor also proposed that the state Board of Elections be provided with a new enforcement unit “with greater independence to investigate and prosecute violations of campaign finance and other election laws.”
Bartoletti said enforcement of campaign finance laws is crucial, and in order for beefed up campaign finance and election laws to be effective, it must be independent. Right now, enforcement is the responsibility of the four-member, bipartisan Board of Elections, and the consequence is “a group of gridlocked folks,” she said.
Another proposal would strengthen New York’s disclosure requirements by requiring that political or lobbying contributions of more than $500 be disclosed within 48 hours, within 24 hours as Election Day approaches. Right now, disclosure is typically required every six months to a year.
“By the time we see what special interests are giving to candidates, they’re already sworn into office,” Bartoletti said.
“It’s not terribly useful to have a lot of information unavailable before Election Day,” Malbin said. “It’s important to know who is spending money on what.”
The governor’s package of reforms also called for early voting, which allows people to vote in person at the Board of Elections or a satellite location prior to Election Day. Thirty-two states already offer early voting.
The idea is to increase voter participation by making it easier for residents to cast a ballot. Right now, New York has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country.
“Early voting is extremely popular in the states that have it,” said Vandewalker.
New York has already enacted a handful of government reform measures under Cuomo, the most significant of which was the Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011. Among other things, it requires elected officials to file financial disclosure statements with the newly created Joint Commission on Public Ethics. These statements are made available in an online, public database.
Officials are no longer allowed to redact monetary values and must list outside clients and customers they are doing business with. The bill also expanded lobbying disclosure requirements and increased penalties for violations of filing requirements and contribution limits.