December 7, 2012
Op-ed by Lawrence Norden and Kelly Williams
Sen. Jeffrey Klein and his four colleagues who make up the Independent Democratic Conference took the extraordinary step last week of caucusing with the Republican Party, promising that the new power-sharing agreement would finally end Albany dysfunction and bring needed attention to key issues like campaign finance reform.
If Sen. Klein, who represents the Bronx and Westchester, wants to make good on his pledge and justify this new coalition, he must work to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform, to change the broken elections system and the culture of dysfunction in Albany.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he supports comprehensive reforms of the state’s outdated campaign finance laws. Most important, the governor has pledged his support for a system of “small donor” matching for elections. Under this kind of system, small donations, up to $175 or $250, would be matched with public funds. A small donor-matching system would allow candidates to eschew big-money donors and rely instead on their own constituents to decide who best deserves to run.
Sen. Klein and his colleagues in the IDC have repeatedly voiced their support for a small donor-matching system, while his Republican colleagues in the Senate have not. Sen. Klein, nevertheless, promised that “campaign finance reform” would come to a vote under the IDC/GOP coalition.
Seldom has there been such a disconnect between what the people want and what a legislature is willing to give them.
Poll after poll has shown that New Yorkers of every political persuasion and from every geographic region want Sen. Klein to deliver on this pledge. A Siena College Poll confirmed that 74 percent of New Yorkers approve of the governor’s plan to institute a small donor-matching system and reform New York’s campaign finance laws. By overwhelming margins, independents (75 percent), Republicans (70 percent) and Democratic voters (77 percent) all declared that they want to revitalize our democracy with such reforms. Remarkably, a poll from Zogby Analytics shows that 80 percent of New York state business leaders would support a small donor-matching system, when coupled with other critical reforms.
A new study from the Campaign Finance Institute estimates that such a system would cost just $25 million to $40 million per year, or just $2 per New Yorker — well worth the cost of fixing our broken elections. As the Brennan Center has reported, such a program has proven effective in New York City and can be a model for New York state — and the nation.
Most important, this system would pay for itself by saving the state money from wasteful spending and public policies that are otherwise the norm in Albany’s current “pay to play” environment. It is a necessary investment given the extensive costs New Yorkers currently incur under a system that puts Albany on the auction block for influence-seeking political money — in special interest tax breaks and spending programs, inefficient government, and a failure to address the problems that matter to the public.
Gov. Cuomo has called for a four-point reform plan in addition to small-donor matching: lowering contribution limits, eliminating loopholes to reduce the influence of a small handful of wealthy donors; enacting pay-to-play rules to further restore the public trust; and providing fair and even-handed enforcement to ensure accountability.
The Assembly has passed comprehensive campaign finance reform in previous sessions. That means Sen. Klein now co-leads the most important remaining obstacle to finally cleaning up Albany. Sen. Klein and his IDC colleagues could be heroes of reform if public financing of elections is passed this session. If it stalls, last week’s move may be remembered as little more than another Albany power play.