The best hope for campaign finance reform would have been to include a public financing system in the state budget, which is what Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised to do.
But Cuomo was unable to get Democrats in the state Assembly to go along with a plan — or he was unwilling to use the political capital necessary to force them to go along — so he has kicked it over to a commission that, if it is actually constituted, will be charged with creating a bill.
What we have now in New York is a wide-open system that allows large cash gifts from wealthy donors, encouraging corruption and discouraging everyday citizens from participating. What we need is a public matching funds system, as New York City has now for city elections, which matches small donations with a multiple in public cash.
In New York City, for example, donations of $250 or less to candidates for city mayor, public advocate or comptroller can be matched 8 to 1 with public funds, meaning a donation of $250 would qualify for a public match of $2,000. The system empowers small donors and encourages candidates to look for financial support from their own constituents instead of seeking out rich donors who may live elsewhere.
Good government groups in New York have proposed a system for state races that would match small donations 6 to 1 with public cash. Unfortunately, even though Democrats in the Assembly had expressed support for public campaign financing numerous times when the Republicans were blocking it in the Senate, once the GOP lost Senate control and it looked as if a bill could pass, the Democrats lost their nerve.
The best deal Cuomo could get as he tried to push his budget through was this arrangement to set up a commission. The 9-member commission will have until Dec. 1 to come up with a recommendation, which will become law if the Legislature doesn’t act on it by Dec. 22.
It sounds more promising than it is, however. First, the nine members have to be chosen. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea-Stewart Cousins each pick two. Each Republican minority leader picks one. Then the ninth member is collectively chosen by Cuomo, Heastie and Stewart-Cousins. If the three of them can’t agree on a ninth member, then the commission never forms.
Cuomo has further complicated the mission of the commission by assigning it to explore whether New York should end fusion voting, which allows candidates to run on more than one party line. Cuomo is pursuing a political grudge against the Working Families Party, which, regardless of its legitimacy, has no place as part of the campaign finance debate.
It looks like Cuomo doesn’t care very much whether a campaign finance bill gets done. We’ve seen before with the Moreland Commission on political corruption how half-hearted his forays into reform can be. He disbanded the Moreland Commission just as it was starting to make progress.
Perhaps the worst result would be for the new commission to come up with a plan that lacks critical elements and, therefore, falls short of real reform. A good matching funds system, for example, has to lower donation limits for candidates that opt out of it. Presidential candidates are limited to taking $2,700 from an individual for the primary and the same amount for the general election. But in New York, a state Senate candidate can accept $18,000 from an individual donor, and a gubernatorial candidate can accept $65,000 in a single election cycle.
Also, the state would have to establish an entity that had the power and the inclination to strictly oversee a matching funds system. Reform would be useless if consequences are slight or nonexistent for ignoring the new rules. The state Board of Elections, which has proved toothless in the past, would be the wrong overseer.
If the system we had now was working well, reform would be unnecessary, but it isn’t. Incumbents have an enormous advantage, because they are able to pull in large donations from inside and outside their districts, leaving the impression — often justified — that representatives owe allegiance to wealthy interests.
A matching funds system would encourage opposition, because opponents with grassroots support would feel they could raise enough money to give themselves a fighting chance. Political competition puts pressure on incumbents to perform. It’s good for everyone.
With enough political pressure, a good result can still be realized from the current situation. If Cuomo feels it’s to his advantage to make this commission work, then a campaign finance bill that establishes a workable matching funds system could be in place in New York by the end of the year. That would be a great way to start 2020.
Local editorials represent the opinion of the Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle, Publisher/Controller/Operations Director Brian Corcoran and citizen representatives Connie Bosse, Barb Sealy and Jean Aurilio.