Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Meditations on Hockey and Democracy

So what does a professional hockey game have in common with New York political campaigns? It’s not that they can both end up looking like sloppy street fights on ice. Rather, they are both getting astronomically pricey.

As a New Yorker, I’m used to perpetual sticker shock. The latest offenders are Rangers tickets. My husband is an avid hockey fan, and much to my chagrin, every winter Center Ice blares from my television every other night. Recently, he snagged last minute tickets to a Canucks-Rangers game at Madison Square Garden for $140. I asked him, “Weren’t there any cheap seats left?” He deadpanned, “Those were the cheap seats.” At $140, tickets are still out of reach for many New York hockey fans. (Granted, if he had planned ahead he could have paid half as much, and if he had waited longer he would have shelled out over $260).

Like Rangers tickets, the cost of political campaigns in New York State is also on the rise. At last count, the 2010 state elections in New York totaled nearly $200 million in political contributions, according to Part of the reason why those totals are so high is contribution limits in New York State are through the roof. For example, an individual can give more than $50,000 to a candidate for governor or attorney general. This structure incentivizes candidates to gather as many big checks as they can, ignoring the smaller donors. For example, the top 80 donors to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign gave him $2.5 million. And anyone can give unlimited amounts to our state’s political parties.

The other reason why New York State candidates chase the big dollar donors is the lack of a public financing system, which would incentivize them to focus on smaller donors. Albany doesn’t have to look far to see how a small donor-focused system would work. In New York City, candidates receive a six to one match for small donations. This means a modest $15 contribution from a middle-class family can be worth $105 to a city candidate. For more than two decades, the New York City system has shown that publicly financed candidates really do shift how they campaign to focus on smaller donors. New York City’s approach ensures there are still affordable cheap seats in local political campaigns, both for potential candidates who don’t have a rolodex full of thousand-dollar donors and for everyday people who need their public officials focused on them.

Encouragingly, Cuomo made reforming the role of money in politics a centerpiece of his recent election campaign, and he endorsed the need to rein in high contribution limits and to adopt a New York City-style version of small donor-focused public financing in his State of the State speech. There’s no time to lose if Cuomo is going to follow through on those promises.

As lyricist Conor Oberst has noted, “Victory is sweet, even deep in the cheap seats.” This is true whether the battle is a hockey game or a tight election. But when it comes to our democracy, we need to make sure that cheap seats even exist. We don’t want a democracy that’s priced like MSG, where even the lowest priced ticket is out of reach for the average New Yorker. For that to be true, we need new campaign finance laws in our fair state.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Senate Rules Committee Continues to Undermine Reform

Without notice, discussion, or explanation, the Majority in the Senate Rules Committee introduced a resolution yesterday to change the rules of that chamber that will give greater power to the Senate Majority. Likely gearing up for an upcoming budget battle, the resolution seeks to do three things:

1) Increase the membership of the Finance Committee and the Rules Committee with members from the majority party;

2) In the event of an excused absence from a meeting, allow for a member to fill in for a Senator on the Finance Committee and Rules Committee; and

3) Allow budget bills from the Finance Committee to bypass the Rules Committee and go straight to the third calendar reading.

The resolution passed committee and is headed for the Senate floor. Capitol Confidential reports that when the Minority objected to the introduction of the new rules, the Majority presented a letter from counsel overruling the objection stating that this was a “privileged resolution” that did not require advance notice.

Whatever the actual substantive impact of these changes (time will tell), the process sure makes it look like a simple power grab.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Voter Owned Elections in New York

Covering a recent panel discussion featuring Ciara Torres-Spelliscy of the Brennan Center, Huffington Post ran a great piece on the future of public financing in the wake of Citizens United. Ciara discussed how New York would benefit by adopting a small donor matching funds system similar to New York City’s, where candidates have an incentive to raise funds from small donors which are later matched by the City. Referring to the positive outcomes of lawmakers being able to make independent policy decisions on major issues, Susan Lerner of Common Cause described public financing as "the reform that makes all other reforms possible."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Charges in Kruger-Boyland Scandal Are Awfully Familiar

The latest volume in the series on Albany corruption was released this morning. The unveiling of the cast was typical of what New Yorkers have come to expect: a Senator, an Assemblyman, a lobbyist, special interests, and Federal prosecutors.

Welcome back to New York politics – where special interest money flows about as freely as possible, and spectators are rarely surprised when indictments drop. Reading today’s batch of corruption charges against Senator Carl Kruger and Assemblyman William Boyland, Jr., reminded us of three common traits this developing scandal shares with other volumes in ongoing Albany corruption saga.

1. As the Brennan Center pointed out in this study last month, of the 14 former legislators who have been indicted, convicted or pled guilty to crimes in the last decade, 10 were related to illegally soliciting or receiving outside income from individuals doing or hoping to do business with the State.

2. The Legislative Ethics Commission, the ethics body charged with overseeing legislative behavior, appears again to have been missing in action. Since its creation in 2007, as Albany has been rocked by no less than nine scandals, the LEC has not taken a single action against a sitting legislator. The only substantive public action taken has been the issuance of a Notice of Reasonable Cause against Hiram Monserrate, after he had been removed from office.

3. Taxpayers pay the price for the undue influence of special interest money that floods the state. The complaint alleges that Sen. Kruger used his official position to provide special treatment to businesses as he advanced their interests before the state. In addition to the charges in the complaint, there have been stories for some time alleging Sen. Kruger was exchanging favors for campaign contributions and fundraisers. Given that these reports surfaced before the election, it is interesting that Sen. Kruger did not face either a primary challenger or a Republican challenger during the last election. Potential challengers likely noted that it would be nearly impossible to wage a privately financed campaign against a candidate with a warchest well in excess of $1 million and more checks coming in all the time. With a system of publicly financed elections like New York City’s, Sen. Krueger would have been much more likely to have faced a challenger.

In the wake of the scandal, Governor Cuomo reaffirmed his commitment to pass ethics reform with “real disclosure and real enforcement” adding “New Yorkers deserve a clean and transparent government comprised of officials who work for the people, not for the special interests and certainly not for their own corrupt self-interests.” In fact, there shouldn't be much question about the kind of reform we need to address the kind of scandals we keep seeing in Albany:

1. An independent and unified ethics commission;
2. Financial disclosure requirements of all outside income for public officials; and
3. A system of publicly financed elections.

An ethics package that combines these three issues will help clean up the problems that have plagued our state for far too long. Until these problems are addressed comprehensively, New Yorkers should expect more of the same.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Hard of Hearing?

To most, this might seem like boring parliamentary wrangling, but to us at the Brennan Center it highlights everything that is dysfunctional in the Legislature:

The Senate engaged in a heated debate yesterday afternoon as lawmakers in the majority sought a vote on an economic development bill, while lawmakers in the minority sought to get a hearing on the Governor's redistricting bill. More specifically, Senate Democrats attempted to appeal a decision by the Chairman of Rules Committee to reject their petition for an "up or down vote" on whether to hold a committee hearing on the bill. Their petition was deemed invalid because it was allegedly "delivered incorrectly."

As the minority engaged in a seemingly hopeless attempt to resuscitate their petition to vote on holding a hearing on an extremely important and well publicized piece of legislation, the public got yet another taste of how hard it is to force a hearing in Albany -- or even to get legislators to publicly VOTE on whether to allow a hearing.

Hearings devoted to important legislation are a foreign concept in Albany. In contrast, many states REQUIRE hearings on ALL legislation. Hearings provide an important opportunity for legislators to obtain important testimony from both experts in the field and the general public -- and to provide momentum for issues that many legislators would otherwise love to see go away -- like reforming the redistricting process, the State's ethics laws, or our campaign finance rules.

We raised the problem of lack of committee hearings on specific bills in 2004, 2006, and 2008. Even after passing new rules in the last session and the current session -- which made it easier to force a hearing -- it still happens all too rarely in Albany.

In a transparent, deliberative, and democratic legislative process, it should simply not be this difficult to hold a hearing. The public deserves better.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Online Sample Ballots for NYC in Time for Next Election

On Friday, our friends at Citizens Union updated us on efforts at the City Council to hold the New York City Board of Elections accountable to its promise to post sample ballots online prior to an election. As we previously blogged, in November the City Board unanimously passed a motion to post sample ballots on its website. Council Member Gale Brewer introduced the bill which would amend the City Charter to require that the Board post sample ballots on its website at least one week prior to an election.

Unlike many other New York Counties, the New York City Board of Elections did not post sample ballot on its website in 2010. After obtaining a copy of the New York City sample ballot, we at ReformNY posted it to our blog (later discovering the mistake on the instructions) and received positive feedback.

Posting sample ballots online is common sense and cost effective way to educate voters. Sample Ballots will make for more confident voters, shorter lines at the polls, and avoid many of the problems encountered on Election Day.