State campaign finance reform would level the playing field


By HAZEL DUKES and DENORA GETACHEW | 3/20/2014, 1:48 p.m.

At the NAACP and the Brennan Center, we have been saying for years that Albany’s elected officials have to be more accountable to the communities—that means us—that they are elected to represent. If we want our elected officials to refocus on the needs of their district, we need to reduce big money’s power in our political system.

Now, in a few short weeks, after countless calls for reform and resistance from legislators who benefit from the status quo, we will find out whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators are serious about enacting needed reforms to elevate the voices of average New Yorkers. Under the current system, candidates for state office don’t have a realistic chance of winning unless they are independently wealthy or spend their time cultivating relationships with wealthy donors who can finance their campaigns.

Once they get into office, they become entrenched in a self-perpetuating system: The only way to ensure reelection is to make policy decisions based on those donors’ interests, to the detriment of constituents who can’t afford to pay for political access. Average New Yorkers—particularly minority and low-income voters—are often shut out or ignored.

This next month provides the best opportunity for reform in recent memory. Cuomo, the Assembly and the state Senate are engaged in negotiations ahead of the April 1 deadline for a final state budget. The governor and Assembly have already included comprehensive reforms, including public financing of elections, in their budget proposals. There is resistance from Senate Republicans to include this common sense proposal in the final budget, but Cuomo and other Democrats are guilty too for not having pushed hard enough in the past to make change a reality. Whether they do so over the next few weeks will be an important sign of how seriously they take the need to make the diverse voices of average New Yorkers heard in Albany.

The current fundraising system has high contribution limits, too many loopholes and lax oversight. We need a system that significantly lowers contribution limits in order to slow the political spending arms race. We need robust and independent oversight of campaign finance spending. Most importantly, reform has to include a public financing system that encourages smaller contributions from donors like you and me.

In New York City, we’ve had a successful public financing system in place for 15 years. Established following a massive corruption scandal in the 1980s, we’ve seen nothing of that scale since. The system magnifies the voice of everyday citizens at a minimal cost. At the state level, it would cost less than a penny a day per New Yorker. Public funding has a proven track record of increasing the diversity of candidates who seek public office.

A 2012 Brennan Center report found that low-income and minority donors participated at far higher rates under the city’s public financing system than they did in state races, even in the same neighborhoods. As a result, candidates without connections to big donors can still raise money and compete. This means a far more diverse pool of candidates for office.