Campaign-finance reform is needed in New York state to help even the playing field, give the average citizen more power and curb abuses.
The public is skeptical about the financing of political campaigns. Many people believe special-interest lobbyists, big business and party leaders control who gets elected by pumping big amounts of cash into the campaigns of favored candidates.
For the most part, they are right. The Campaign Finance Institute reported last week that New York State Legislature candidates for 2012 raised 74 percent of their money from donors who gave them $1,000 or more and from interest groups — only 8 percent came from donors giving $250 or less. Those percentage were about the same in 2010 and 2008.
The campaign-finance plan preferred by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the non-partisan Common Cause would be based on a setup now employed in New York City. Under that system, $6 in matching funds is provided for each $1 donated to a candidate, up to the first $175 from that source. (Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wants a $250 ceiling).
So if Jane Doe donated $10 to the campaign of a senator, the campaign would receive that $10 plus $60 in public campaign funds.
Multiplying smaller contributions boosts the power of the average citizen, meaning candidates will have to pay more attention to their take on issues.
Campaign Finance Institute studies show that small donors would likely be responsible for a majority of the candidates’ campaign funds under a matching system and that New York City’s system brings in a far more diverse pool of donors than traditional fundraising.
We oppose the use of general-fund money for campaign financing. Taxpayers can’t afford to take on that burden, as much as it might benefit them.
A dedicated fund would raise the match money through a special fee. New York is considering a couple of possibilities: a surcharge on securities-fraud cases and a percentage of gambling revenue, if that is expanded, as proposed by Cuomo.
Candidates can’t be forced to use public campaign funds; it would be voluntary. But Common Cause Executive Director Susan Lerner said that in Connecticut, more than 60 percent of candidates now use public funds. And Campaign Finance Institute reports that almost all candidate for New York State Legislature would be better off with public matching funds replacing high contribution limits.
Incumbents could be impacted by a switch to public funding. Where most donations now go to established lawmakers, making them difficult to unseat, the new system could also provide funds to challengers. That might mean more pressure for candidates who have been used to running uncontested or against opponents who pose little threat due to lack of campaign money.
But pressure equates to accountability, and competition is always healthy. If carefully planned and accompanied by reasonable contribution limits, public matching funds could shift more election power to the little person — and that idea gets our vote.