Opinion Editorial on Small Donor Empowerment
Editorial: Campaign laws need a big fix
Friday, March 15, 2013
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has rattled off important objectives in his bid to change New York’s campaign laws, calling for “transparency, disclosure, public finance, limits.”
He’s right on three out of four accounts, though he should have added a “fair and independent redistricting process,” which state lawmakers blatantly chose to ignore last year but will be the subject of Saturday’s opinion series on voting reform.
Let’s take the governor’s comments in order.
Transparency? Absolutely. For starters, good-government groups have for years called for laws that would shed more light on elected officials’ outside business dealings and the use of campaign money for personal purposes. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which once branded the state Legislature “the most dysfunctional in the nation,” has deemed the state’s campaign finance regulations among the worst in the nation, and with good reason.
Disclosure? You bet. As is, there are virtually no restrictions on how campaign money is used in New York and reporting requirements are shoddy. Cuomo’s proposals call for public disclosure of contributions of more than $500 within 48 hours. The current law requires twice-yearly disclosures, and there are far too many loopholes in the reporting requirements.
Public finance? Not so fast. It’s true some states have implemented public financing with varying degrees of success. Typically under these arrangements, candidates can receive public funding by agreeing to spending limits and first gathering a set number of small contributions from individuals within their district. But whether taxpayer money should be used to fund campaigns is a whole other story. It would mean less money for other things. And it would mean your hard-earned money could go to help candidates who stand for everything you abhor. There is something fundamentally wrong about that.
Limits? Definitely needed. Corporations and public unions in particular pumped gobs of money into the campaign war chests of politicians during elections. Limits on campaign donations from individuals and political groups in New York are so high they are virtually meaningless. Individuals can contribute more than $60,000 to a candidate for statewide office, far higher than most other states.
Of course, the governor knows a thing or two about raising money. He has amassed his own political war chest, and his image — and agenda — has been greatly bolstered by the lobbying group the Committee to Save New York.
While tightening campaign laws makes great sense, so does enforcing the laws already on the books and empowering the state Board of Elections to investigate possible abuses far more thoroughly.
The state’s campaign finance laws have been a mess for a long time. It will take political will — and a good push from the public — to fix them.