In the coming weeks, New York could adopt a strong system of public financing of elections and help bring good government to Albany.
Or it could set up an incumbent-protection racket.
Guess which way things are leaning?
The long fight for public financing in New York State got a big break this year, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature put a nine-member Public Campaign Financing Commission in charge of designing the system. The commission’s recommendations are due Dec. 1. Unless the Legislature steps in, they will become law within 20 days.
Public financing works by offering a match in taxpayer dollars to small donations raised by qualifying candidates, increasing competition in elections. In New York City, for example, participating candidates receive $8 from taxpayers for every $1 they raise, up to $175 per donor. That means raising $175 results in $1,575 for the campaign war chest.
Since the commission first met in August, its members, in public testimony and private correspondence, have shown a keen interest in some terrible ideas.
Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the New York State Democratic Party and a Cuomo appointee on the commission, suggested in an email to other commissioners that the group raise the number of votes needed to get onto the ballot to roughly 250,000 from 50,000. Conveniently for both the Republican and Democratic parties, that would effectively destroy third parties, like the Working Families Party. What a coincidence.
The commission’s members also voted last month to limit matching dollars to in-district donations, a move that could hamper challengers even as the state’s political parties — which generally back incumbents — are allowed to receive almost unlimited contributions.
Lost in these efforts to gut election reform is an opportunity to replicate the successful system already in place in New York City, which includes donations from city residents who live outside the council district a candidate is running to represent. An alternate proposal to offer state candidates a 6-to-1 match for the state’s program is just fine.
The only way to make limiting matching funds work would be to set reasonable qualifying criteria. If the commission limits matching funds to in-district donations, then candidates shouldn’t be required to raise any more than $4,000 for Assembly races and $9,600 for Senate races, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice.
The city’s system works well because it is overseen by a nonpartisan, largely independent agency with the power to fine candidates for violating campaign finance rules. That agency, known as the Campaign Finance Board, has five members appointed by the mayor and the City Council speaker. In a healthy civic tradition, mayors and local officials have filled the board with experts, not political hacks.
It is crucial that the commission create such a body at the state level to oversee public financing. If not, the program will be overseen by the partisan and dysfunctional Board of Elections.
Good government is hard work, especially in Albany. But nine people have a chance at real reform: Henry Berger, a former special counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio; Mylan Denerstein, a litigator and former federal prosecutor; Jay Jacobs, the state’s Democratic Party chairman; Rosanna Vargas, an associate law clerk; Crystal Rodriguez, an official at Buffalo State College; DeNora Getachew, the executive director of a nonprofit that seeks to increase civic participation among young people; John Nonna, the county attorney for Westchester County; David Previte, a former chief counsel to the State Senate Majority; and Kimberly Galvin, a high-ranking State Board of Elections official and a former counsel to the Republican Assembly leader.
There’s an old saw in politics: When you don’t want to fix a problem, appoint a commission. Unfortunately, the Public Campaign Financing Commission appears poised to make election problems worse.