Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has announced a proposal to experiment with partial public financing of campaigns. He wants to test the system during the Comptroller’s election in 2010.
A carefully crafted public financing system would be a significant step forward for New York. Public financing helps to ensure that the force of a candidate’s ideas, not her personal fortune or fundraising prowess, determines who may successfully run for office. This type of system also frees candidates and officials from the rigors of fundraising so they can spend more time listening to their constituents and developing innovative policy solutions.
We at the Brennan Center welcome efforts to reform the comptroller elections. We hope that DiNapoli's bill is the start of a serious conversation about public financing in New York State. But substantively, this bill is not calculated to achieve the goals of public financing.
Effective partial public financing systems encourage candidates to pay more attention to smaller donors by providing candidates with public funds to match small contributions. For example, New York City has a 4-to-1 match, which means that a candidate receives $4 in public funds for every $1 of a contribution up to $250. Unfortunately, DiNapoli’s bill turns the purpose of matching funds on its head by rewarding candidates who collect larger contributions and at a much higher ratio: the plan would match contributions as high as $2,500 at 6-to-1 for general election contests.
The spending limit structure in DiNapoli’s proposal is also flawed. Most public financing systems require candidates to limit their expenditures in exchange for receiving public funds. DiNapoli’s plan calls for generous expenditure limits to allow candidates to get their message out to the public—$5 million for a primary election and $7.5 million for the general. But it also contains a provision that would lift these already high limits completely when participating candidates are faced with high-spending privately funded opponents. Most systems raise the cap but do not do away with it altogether under these circumstances.
We urge DiNapoli to fine-tune this bill so it would in fact achieve the type of reform New York so desperately needs. In this case, the devil is truly in the details.