Politicians doling out taxpayers’ money love to portray the spending as an “investment.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is no exception, sprinkling the term throughout this week’s budget message to justify spending on infrastructure, economic development, schools – everything except money to make Albany work for taxpayers instead of lobbyists.
Public financing of campaigns to make politicians responsive to average voters is the one area where the term “investment” most applies. Yet this is where Cuomo had nothing to say, unlike two weeks ago when he called for “a public finance system” to restore trust during his State of the State speech.
The oratory was inspiring, but the budget is where rhetoric turns into reform – or not.
Whatever you don’t like about New York – construction laws that drive up public costs, corporate tax breaks, collective-bargaining laws stacked against taxpayers – can be traced to a campaign system that amounts to legalized bribery.
Changing it would cost New Yorkers about $2 per year, far less than we pay now for government run by lobbyists.
The $2 estimate – in line with actual costs from other states that have adopted public financing – comes from a Campaign Finance Institute analysis last month. It was based on various scenarios factoring in current donor patterns and projections under an Assembly proposal for matching funds and voluntary contribution limits. The study found that only 8 percent of the money given to State Legislature candidates came from donors giving $250 or less, while 76 percent came from those giving $1,000 or more, or from interest groups.
If you’re among the big givers, you may like things the way they are. But if you’re among those giving only a few bucks – or among the 99 percent of New Yorkers who give nothing at all – how represented do you feel?
That’s what Cuomo meant when he talked about “trust” two weeks ago, and why his silence this week is unsettling.
Karen Scharff is more upbeat. The executive director of Citizen Action, which has made this a priority, expects Cuomo to introduce his plan in a later bill rather than in the budget because a system of public financing couldn’t be implemented this year, anyway.
With Assembly leaders already onboard, and Democrats holding pivotal seats in the recalcitrant Senate under its new power-sharing arrangement, she thinks there’s a chance to change “the whole pay-to-play culture in Albany.”
I might be equally sanguine, except for two things. One is the good-government governor’s vow to veto any redistricting plan not drawn up by an independent panel – and his subsequent decision to abandon that vow.
The other is a NYPIRG analysis showing that nearly 79 percent of Cuomo campaign money since 2010 came from those giving $10,000 or more. He now has $22.5 million in his campaign account. Waiting for politicians who benefit from the system to change it is like waiting for crack addicts to push new drug laws.
But Cuomo is, above all, a politician. And a recent Public Action Campaign Fund poll of likely voters showed three-quarters support public financing with donor limits. Maybe that means he’ll eventually get around to it – after giving Albany’s finest another year to extort as much as they can.