Monday, February 25, 2008

The Six Million Dollar State Senator?

Tomorrow’s special election for the 48th Senate district will continue a disturbing trend in state politics. As the strength of party control ebbs, Senate campaigns have become exponentially more expensive. As reported in today’s Albany Times Union, it appears the race between Assemblymen Darrel Aubertine, the Democrat, and William Barclay, the Republican, will be the first or second most expensive ever for the Senate.

According to Russ Haven, legislative counsel for New York Public Interest Research Group, the candidates have raised about $1 million each and the parties have spent more than $1.5 million combined—so far. When all is said and done, the North Country Senate seat may cost a total of $6 million. In another closely contested Senate race from last year, also a special election, more than $5 million was spent between Craig Johnson and Maureen O’Connell on Long Island.

No matter what happens tomorrow, whether the Democrats gain a seat or the Republicans hold off a challenge, the Senate will remain one or two seats away from a tie. (That’s if the rumored behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Governor Spitzer can’t turn up a Senate Republican willing to switch parties.)

In any event, this year there are about 10 Senate seats that may be contested. If the past is any guide, this year a total of $50 million may be spent on state Senate races. Like the fictional astronaut Steve Austin, the state’s campaign finance reform is in critical need of rebuilding.

As my colleague Ciara Torres-Spelliscy and Ari Weisbard point out in “What Albany Could Learn from New York City: A Model of Meaningful Campaign Finance Reform in Action,” contribution limits are at least eight necessary fixes needed to alter the system. Perhaps most important is the sky-high aggregate contribution limits, which is $150,000 for individuals, and the lax rules governing corporate contributions, which are banned by the federal government and nearly half the states.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but we have the capability, though perhaps not yet the will, to do what 15 states—and most notably New York City—have already done. A system of public financing that would be far better than it is currently.

Better. Smarter. Fairer.

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