By Luke Wachob
A recent wave of editorials harshly criticized Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for choosing not to include a controversial provision to publicly finance Assembly and State Senate campaigns in his budget. A closer look at the effects of taxpayer-financed campaigns reveals that New York dodged a bullet by saying no to handouts for politicians.
Those who advocate for public financing argue that providing tax dollars for political campaigns will reduce politicians’ reliance on wealthy donors, leading to less corruption and better government. But New York State’s corruption problems run much deeper than the campaign trail. Take State Sen. Shirley Huntley, for example, who stole $87,700 from a taxpayer-funded nonprofit while in office. Or Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, who accepted more than $20,000 in cash bribes from business developers. A public financing program won’t stop corrupt politicians from embezzling public funds or taking bribes. It will just give them more of the public’s money to spend.
This experiment has been played out in New York City, where public financing for City Council candidates has resulted in an astounding $19 million being handed to candidates who were later investigated on corruption charges since 2001.
Three other states already have tax-financed campaign programs for all legislative races, and the results should serve as a cautionary tale. A 2010 Government Accountability Office analysis concluded that Arizona and Maine had failed to achieve their goals. In Connecticut, my organization analyzed voting records and found that participation in the state’s tax-financing program had no effect on legislators’ likelihood of voting with organized interest groups.
Unfortunately, when a government is corrupt to begin with, adding a tax-financing program only opens new avenues for even greater corruption.
While advocates for these programs argue that they give ordinary people a louder voice, reality shows that they just make it easier for politicians to enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers. Forcing every New Yorker to fund every campaign in the state would not have made government more accountable to the people; it would only have taken scarce tax dollars away from more pressing legislative priorities. Government should be focusing on those issues, not debating how best to fill politicians’ campaign coffers.
Unfortunately, the threat of taxpayer-financed campaigns still looms. Cuomo recently wrote in the Huffington Post that he will “keep fighting” for public financing of legislative campaigns. This effort is deeply misguided. Grandiose rhetoric should not trump the sobering evidence from states that have tried and failed to “clean” their politics with handouts to politicians.
Luke Wachob is the McWethy Fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics.