(photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)
New York State government has often failed to address our biggest challenges. Surprisingly, during the 2019 legislative session real protections for renters were approved over the objections of New York’s powerful real estate industry. Congestion pricing for Manhattan’s central business district was written into law, along with far-reaching climate change legislation. Cash bail was abolished for most crimes, and bump stocks that cause rifles to fire like machine guns were banned. Women’s rights and LGBTQ rights were enhanced in important ways.
Yet, efforts to reform the electoral process stalled after a few notable successes. To revive momentum, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature created a commission and charged it with issuing rules to implement public campaign financing by December 1. The commissioners were named last week and are about to set to work.
Structural change to New York State’s campaign finance system is crucial. The ease with which legislative influence is traded for money in Albany has created a culture of corruption that promotes special interests above the public interest.
We have yet to come to terms with rusting bridges, crumbling infrastructure, and failing public transit networks. Public housing slides further into disrepair daily. Young people of color are denied quality education. Nearly 1 million New Yorkers have no health insurance. The public will be ill-served on these and other matters if legislation responds to the demands of the highest bidders.
As the campaign finance commission begins its work, here are six ways to ensure our state elected officials represent everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful.
1. New York needs lower election contribution limits, a cap on campaign expenditures, and a ban on donations from political action committees, businesses, and unions.
Current law allows candidates for statewide office to accept the obscene amount of $47,500 from a single contributor, and more than $65,000 if they face a primary. State Senate candidates can accept $18,000, aspiring Assembly members more than $9,000. The threshold for all these offices should be lowered to $5,000 so that no single contributor can hold sway over an official. Candidates should also be subject to an overall campaign cap of $1 per constituent to limit the quest for cash.
2. New York should join 29 states that wisely ban elected officials from fund-raising during the legislative session. Cashing checks while passing laws creates the undeniable appearance of corruption. Violators should be forced to forfeit all of an event’s contributions, along with a penalty of an equal amount, into a public election fund.
3. New York should establish a statewide public finance system that mirrors New York City’s. Candidates who meet minimum thresholds should receive $8 of public matching funds for each dollar of a donation up to $250. This would encourage candidates to seek support from all their constituents, not just the rich.
4. Candidates for public office should be required to release five years of federal and state tax returns to enable voters to determine how official decisions might affect a lawmaker’s pockets.
5. Increasing New York’s ban on lobbying after government service from two years to five would provide a greater buffer against the risk of lawmakers trading votes for the promise of future employment.
6. The campaign finance commission should signal support for legislation sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger to strengthen the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).
She has proposed a nine-member commission with five selected by the chief judge of New York and the presiding justices of each of the state’s four appellate divisions, and the remaining four chosen by elected officials. Decisions should be determined by a majority vote.
In addition to overseeing lobbying, the new JCOPE should exercise enforcement power over campaign finance so that the crucial elements of the Albany Arrangement’s pay-to-play culture are monitored by a single entity.
These proposed reforms will diminish the corrosive influence of cash on politics. Transparency and accountability will rise, and the public interest will displace special interests as the most important influence on our lawmakers. The campaign finance commission has a rare opportunity to effect long-lasting improvements to our democracy. They should seize the moment and act boldly.
Chris McNickle is a historian, author, and businessman. On Twitter @NYChrisMcnickle.