Press-Republican

April 8, 2013

Campaign finance reform pushed

By DAN HEATH
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Lower contribution limits and public funding for election campaigns are two keys to campaign finance reform in New York state.

Common Cause New York Executive Director Susan Lerner spoke with the Press-Republican Editorial Board about her group’s desire to see the measure put in place for state elections. 

She said she believes reform legislation will be enacted during this legislative session, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made it a priority.

The movement gained increased traction last week in the wake of two more alleged corruption scandals that involved state elected officials. 

”People are angry, and they want some positive change,” Lerner said.

LOWER LIMITS

The package of fair election reforms favored by Common Cause New York has several key components. One would be to enact lower contribution limits.

New York State Election Law allows a person to contribute up to $60,800 to a gubernatorial candidate in each election cycle — $19,700 in a primary race and $41,100 in the general election. According to a New York State League of Women Voters background paper, that is seven times more than the national average.

For a Senate race, the total is $16,800 — $6,500 for a primary and $10,300 for the general election. That is four times more than the national average.

In an Assembly race, the total is $8,200 — $4,100 for both the primary and general election. That is two times the national average.

Smaller donors often believe candidates are beholden to large contributors, Lerner said.

In some cases, it may even discourage them from voting, she said.

LLC LOOPHOLE

Lerner also sees a need to eliminate what she calls the LLC loophole. While a corporation is limited to a $5,000 contribution in a calendar year, each limited liability corporation can contribute that amount, even if owned by the same person.

Those extra contributions are not allowed in federal and New York City elections, she said.

“That is really not the way our system should be working.”

NYC MODEL

Common Cause New York would also like to see the option for candidates to choose public funding for an election campaign. 

That could be based on the New York City system, which allows contributions up to $175 to receive a six-way match. That gives candidates more incentive to talk with small donors and better represent their constituents.

Lerner said the staff at Common Cause New York believes that money should come from the state’s general fund. Possible sources include a surcharge on penalties in securities fraud cases and a percentage of the increased revenue from the state’s plan to add up to three new casinos.

ENFORCEMENT VITAL

Lerner said 60 percent or more of both Republican and Democratic candidates in Connecticut have opted for public funding under that state’s fair election system.

Publicly funded candidates can use that to their advantage by saying their opponents are so scared that they are spending vast amounts on attack ads, she said.

Any reform package needs to be coupled with transparency and enforcement provisions, Lerner said. Voters need to know who is funding candidates who don’t opt for public funding.

If public funds are supporting a candidate, there needs to be a way to ensure they are used properly.

“Enforcement is absolutely essential,” she said.

Email Dan Heath:dheath@pressrepublican.com