The decision by the state Board of Elections declaring that political campaign donors will no longer be subject to a $150,000 limit in contributions per year to candidates or political groups in New York sends a clear message that the system of funding state elections is broken.
Board members decided that the state limit on annual campaign donations by an individual, or limited liability company, can’t be enforced in light of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision in April.
That ruling overturned the cap on the total amount donors could give to federal candidates in every two-year election cycle, and it continued the court’s erosion of limits on campaign contributions.
The state Board of Elections decision will likely not have an immediate impact on campaign practices in New York because there are so many loopholes in the system that it is easy enough to give more than $150,000.
Last year, which was an off-year for state elections, the New York Public Interest Research Group said that two people gave more than $1 million to candidates and parties, showing how meaningless the restrictions had become.
In one sense, the ruling won’t have much impact in Western New York, where few people throw those huge sums around. But it will cede even more influence to wealthy downstate special interests such as hedge fund manager James Simons and real estate developer Leonard Litwin, according to Bill Mahoney, research coordinator at NYPIRG.
Because those interests want to buy influence across the state, their cash will likely show up in Western New York races.
The subject of campaign donation limits has been a hot-button topic. Recent Supreme Court decisions have struck down campaign contribution limits as infringements on the free speech of the donors. We have said that speech is just that – speech, while money donated to candidates is an amplifier for that speech. Because the Supreme Court has ruled otherwise, we can expect the flood of campaign cash to become even bigger, creating new opportunities for corruption in government.
On the state level, many elections are funded almost exclusively by the parties controlled by two people, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate co-leader Dean Skelos. The board’s ruling will help the political parties they lead to grow stronger.
Public financing of elections has been floated as a possible reform that would reduce the power of big donors because it would reward candidates who reach out to many small donors. But there seems to be little appetite for such a system in New York.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s once-grand vision for public financing ran into opposition from people who did not want taxpayer money going to candidates who do not share their political views.
Change is desperately needed, but not change that shifts even more power to wealthy interests. Albany’s notorious pay-to-play culture will not end on its own. State leaders need to find a way to return power over government to the people. One way to start would be to reduce the state’s sky-high contribution limits.