As a long line of state legislators faces indictments and possibly prison time for a host of infractions, a key group of senators believes that the corruption developments of recent weeks create an ideal climate to achieve New York’s first real campaign finance reform in years.
The Independent Democratic Conference, part of a coalition with Republicans that comprises the Senate majority, sponsored a hearing in Erie County Hall on Monday aimed at building support for a top-to-bottom overhaul of political campaign financing in New York State.
If the group, headed by Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx, gets it way, new rules that drastically restrict contributions and impose new directives on how campaigns are financed – while also introducing the concept of public financing – could reduce the role of big money in state campaigns.
“This is a window of opportunity,” Klein said, comparing it to the January passage of new gun-control measures following the mass shooting in a Connecticut elementary school where 20 first-graders and six educators were killed.
“We passed the most comprehensive gun law in the nation because of the terrible tragedy in Sandy Hook,” he added.
Klein hosted the hearing with Sens. Diane J. Savino of Staten Island and David J. Valesky of Oneida County following a meeting with editors and reporters of The Buffalo News. The bill they have introduced in the Senate resembles others that are under consideration in the Assembly and that have been proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, though the independent Democrats contend that their version goes further.
Major provisions include:
• Limiting contribution limits to $2,600 per person.
• Prohibiting corporate contributions.
• Ending party housekeeping accounts, which have no contribution limits.
• Reducing transfers from state party committees to $2,600.
• Restricting donations from individuals who have business before the state.
• Ending the ability of party leaders to grant minor-party lines without grass-roots support, while retaining the concept of “fusion” voting.
“This is the most comprehensive plan out there,” Klein said.
The proposal would introduce a public campaign financing system similar to what has guided New York City elections for years, in which qualifying candidates would be eligible to receive public matching funds. Under the Independent Democratic Conference’s plan, candidates opting not to participate in the public financing system would be required to participate in an overhauled campaign finance system.
“How do we really take money out of politics unless we level the field?” Klein asked.
Savino said that one of the highlights of the bill is a limit of $168,000 for legislative campaigns for those who accept public financing. That provides for a level playing field, she said, while reducing the constant pressure faced by legislators to raise campaign money.
“It puts some consistency in all campaigns,” she said, “while at the same time, they reach a point where they stop raising money and actually talk to voters.”
Other ramifications of accepting the money would be a prohibition against “negative campaigning,” which Savino said would eliminate automated phone calls that “voters hate so much.” Such decisions would be enforced by a campaign finance board that would also have new powers to impose fines on violators.
Still, Republican legislators, especially, are raising vocal objections to the plan. Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, who was slated to be targeted by one advocacy group in a Monday demonstration, has raised a number of questions. He believes that such a new system would end up costing as much as $220 million and that those candidates accepting public funds could use them for noncampaign-related expenses.
“I fully support campaign finance reform that includes more robust disclosure requirements, stricter penalties for violators and caps on contribution,” he said Monday. “But spending over $220 million or more on taxpayer-funded elections is not the answer. That money could be better spent elsewhere like cutting taxes or increasing funding to education and economic development.”
But Valesky and the independent Democrats, who could represent an important voting bloc in determining the legislation’s future, say that such a new system would be financed by voluntary checkoffs on income tax returns and unclaimed funds collected by the state comptroller, so the money would not be diverted from other state obligations.
Valesky also pointed to a ban on corporate money and the $2,600 limit on contributions, which would drastically reduce the influence of big donors.
“No one has proposed anything close to this,” he said.
The independent Democrats also said that other safeguards are built into the legislation, requiring serious candidates to meet thresholds of viability. They acknowledged, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010 will still allow for significant expenditures by independent groups.
Klein said he is “confident” of enactment of some kind of campaign finance reform before the legislative session ends in June.