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Column: Are we ready to pay for campaigns?

Column: Are we ready to pay for campaigns?

Public financing of elections in New York could reduce the influence of big money
Column: Are we ready to pay for campaigns?
Election signs on Milton Ave on peoples lawns in Ballston Spa, on Thursday, November 1, 2018.
Photographer: Erica Miller/Gazette Photographer

For The Sunday Gazette

Most people agree: Money has a corroding effect on our democracy.

It facilitates political corruption. It tips the scales towards electoral incumbents. It drowns out the voices of everyday citizens in favor of power players. And it makes fundraising prowess just as relevant for politicians as expertise or personal character.

Though we might never achieve an electoral process free of moneyed interests, that doesn’t mean we can’t work towards completing the puzzle.

And following the 2018 election results, one major piece we’ve held in our hands for years – public financing of elections – might just fit into place.

Public financing involves using public money to help amplify the voice of the average citizen during election season.

FUNDING ALREADY AVAILABLE

These financing systems already exist at the federal level, in over a dozen states and even in New York City.

Each program is built differently, but they all follow the same pattern: If you can demonstrate you have broad-based appeal, for instance by getting donations from X number of counties, and agree to certain spending restrictions, you can get public money to help out with your campaign. 

In some systems, for example the general presidential election program, major party nominees can get a cash grant with some strings attached.

In other systems, including the New York City system, eligible candidates can get matching dollars for each private donation up to a certain size and amount.

In 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on corruption recommended that New York establish a public elections financing system.

And in 2014, we actually ran a limited pilot program for it.

Unfortunately, this pilot program was awful.

STATE ATTEMPT

Instead of creating a robust, workable system, Cuomo and the Legislature threw together a half-baked, loophole-ridden program at the very end of that year’s budget negotiations. Amazingly, the program went into effect during the middle of the campaign – way too late for candidates to make full use of it. 

In addition, the program was limited to the race for state comptroller.

But the program was so bad that Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli – a staunch public financing advocate running for reelection – didn’t participate.

Not only that, but his Republican opponent didn’t even meet the fundraising threshold to qualify for matching funds.

After it became clear the program was going to fail, Cuomo asked the Republican-led Senate to work with him on an improved, permanent program.

They didn’t, and haven’t.

But beginning next year, Democrats will control both houses of the state Legislature. And all indications are that a public financing system will be debated in the coming session.

So, aside from enacting it early enough to be useful, what should our lawmakers do this time?

WHAT’S NEXT?

First, the eligibility requirements need to be reasonable.

The fundraising (or signature) threshold needs to be low enough that it allows a range of candidates to qualify – but not so low that every vanity candidate gets taxpayer money.

Given that a major party nominee wasn’t even able to qualify in 2014, we should probably bring the bar down much lower.

Second, the benefits themselves need to be sufficiently appealing.

One thing the 2014 test did right is that it matched eligible donations at a rate of 6 to 1, each at a maximum of $175 per donor.

New York City’s successful program does the same.

By comparison, the federal system for primary elections gives only 1 to 1 matching funds, and only one major party candidate – Martin O’Malley – used it in 2016.

HOW IT COULD WORK

Here’s how it could work in practice.

Let’s say 1,000 people gave $5 each to your campaign.

Under the New York City model, the system would give you $30,000 in matching funds. But if your campaign got $5,000 from a single donor, you’d only get $1,050 extra.

Clearly, smaller donations put together would make a greater impact than a single fat check.

Interestingly, under the plan which Cynthia Nixon proposed during the primaries, contributions under $50 would be matched a whopping 9 to 1 – which is better if you like magnifying small donations.

Virtually all finance systems have a limit on the total amount of public aid a candidate can receive.

This is necessary to prevent progressive inflation of the overall cost of campaigning.

However, this cap does need to be high enough that publicly funded candidates can stand a chance against those who don’t need aid.

Finally, we’d need to put balanced conditions on accepting the public money.

That should include what it can be spent on and how much other private money can be spent.

These limits should dissuade rich candidates from taking public funds by default.

But they shouldn’t be so restrictive as to deter the average campaign from opting into the system. 

You might wonder how much this could cost. In 2013, the Campaign Finance Institute estimated that a small donor matching system for New York would cost between $26 million and $41 million per year. Even for the higher-end estimate, that’s less than 0.04 percent of our $100.1 billion FY19 operating budget. That essentially amounts to a rounding error that would help keep our democracy healthy. 

Setting up a system would require careful thought and calibration. 

And even then, it wouldn’t solve all of our electoral problems.

We also need to do things like close the “LLC loophole,” which allows people to donate up to $150,000 at a time to candidates just by funneling the money through dime-a-dozen Limited Liability Companies. 

In 2014, Cuomo described public financing of elections as “what we need to do to regain the trust of the citizens in this state.” 

He couldn’t have been more right.

In the end, public financing would give candidates an avenue to run for public office that doesn’t require paying attention to donors – just voters.

Importantly, public financing has been found to increase the competitiveness of elections – meaning that instead of incumbents winning year after year, our elections would be a marketplace of ideas and debate.

New York needs a well-crafted public financing system in early 2019 so it can be viable for the 2020 elections.

Our democracy can’t wait any longer. If we kick this can down the road, the opportunity may never return again.

Steve Keller is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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