Campaign finance reform is one of those good ideas that has never gained much traction in Albany. That’s because the current system encourages virtually unlimited contributions to Albany politicians, who can use the money in virtually any way they see fit.
Last week’s arrests of a state senator and an assemblyman and the resignation of a second assemblyman confirmed that Albany remains a cesspool of politics. The first step in changing that sorry situation is to limit the amount of money pouring into campaign coffers.
State Sen. Malcolm Smith, D-Queens, and several downstate politicians have been charged in an alleged bribery plot to get Smith elected New York City mayor. Days later, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, a Bronx Democrat, was accused of accepting bribes to sponsor legislation to benefit business interests. Assemblyman Nelson Castro, another Bronx Democrat, resigned after years of cooperating with investigators in an effort to save his own skin.
There is so much money flowing to politicians that it takes a truly flagrant abuse of the system to draw the attention of investigators. Make no mistake – many legislators go into office with the idea of doing good and serving their communities. But at some point, the drive to win re-election means those noble intentions often get left behind. The public is left to watch as legislators head into court.
New York State has one of the highest political contribution limits in the country, capping out at more than $60,000 per person. That limit gives the state more than its share of politicians beholden to a few big-spending contributors and special interests.
One way to reduce the power of special interests is to move to a system of public financing of campaigns. New York City’s system provides $6 in public money for each dollar, up to $175, contributed by city residents.
Opponents of public financing of campaigns don’t want to spend taxpayers dollars on elections. But reforming the state’s campaign finance system should curb cronyism and special deals to campaign donors, and restore some confidence in the State Legislature.
The Campaign Finance Institute has estimated that a 6-to-1 matching system would cost New Yorkers about $2 per person each year, but it will pay off for taxpayers by ending the pay-to-play system we have now. We’ll have a more democratic election system where candidates can win a seat without becoming beholden to the wealthiest donors.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who as state attorney general worked diligently to root out public corruption, has said he is committed to campaign finance reform. However, he has yet to put forth a concrete proposal. The latest arrests should give him the push to get moving.
Politics should not be the system that it has become … the never-ending pursuit of campaign cash. Campaign finance reform will return some power to the citizens of New York.