Which is better for democracy, political candidates taking large campaign contributions from a small number of wealthy donors or small contributions from a large number of middle-class ones? It’s pretty obvious, but apparently of no significance to Senate Republicans, who continue to oppose one of the most important reforms, one that could take much of the money and the corruption it encourages out of New York state politics: public financing of elections.
Gov. Cuomo, who has tried and failed in the past to get the Senate to approve such a system, has improved the odds this year by including it in his budget proposal. Not only does that make it more serious as an issue, it forces Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos to deal with the four-member Independent Democratic Conference, who the Republicans need to keep control of the Senate, and who favor public financing. It also raises the possibility of Cuomo imposing the changes by putting them in budget extenders needed to keep government running if a budget is not passed.
Cuomo’s plan is based on a public financing system introduced in New York City in 1988 that provides matching funds for small contributions, with participating candidates agreeing to accept contribution and spending limits. The match is 6-to-1 for donations of up to $175. And it has made a difference, with more competitive elections, more candidates and more political involvement by the average citizen.
What would the system cost? There are no firm numbers. They range from $200 million per year, the Republicans’ estimate, to $60 million from the good-government groups who support it. We think the lower number is more credible since it was also used by the corruption-investigating Moreland Commission, which recommended public financing.
Whatever the cost, it’s worth it. The current system is bad for democracy and encourages corruption, both the illegal and legal kind, as big donors and lobbyists get access that others don’t, and get what they want as a result. It’s time to drain the swamp with public financing.