The Brennan Center regularly compiles the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics—and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform. We’ll also be linking to dispatches from around the country highlighting the national scope of this crisis. This week’s links were contributed by Katherine Munyan and Syed Zaidi.
Gov. Cuomo Proposes Public Financing of Elections in Budget
In his executive budget proposal to the legislature this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo included legislation advancing reforms to the state’s campaign finance, disclosure and election laws. Under the proposal, contributions up to $175 to state legislative candidates would be matched with public financing at a 6-to-1 ratio, starting in 2016. Then in 2018, candidates for state-wide office would also be eligible for the voluntary public financing program. Participating candidates would have to abide by strict contribution and spending limits in exchange for the public funds. “I think it is inarguable that the amount of money in politics has created a number of difficult issues,” Cuomo stated in his executive budget presentation. Other proposals in the budget were lower corporate contribution limits, down to $1,000 per year, new limits on donations to party “housekeeping accounts” at $25,000 per year, detailed prohibitions on using campaign contributions for the personal benefit of a candidate, and disclosure of major donors supporting organizations engaged in independent expenditures. The law would also create an Independent Division of Election Law Enforcement in the State Board of Elections, with a budget of $5.3 million and additional staff to support enforcement of campaign and election rules.
Sixty-four Percent of New Yorkers Support Public Financing of Campaigns
Once again, a majority of New Yorkers across various demographics have come out in support of public financing of election campaigns according to a Siena College Research Institute Poll released this week. The survey asked registered voters in the state whether they favor creating a “system of public campaign financing” that limits “the size of political contributions to candidates,” and uses “state money to match smaller contributions to candidates.” Overall, 64 percent replied in the affirmative. A majority of Democrats and Independents, 71 percent and 66 percent respectively, and a plurality of Republicans, 49 percent, stand behind the measure. More than 60 percent of New Yorkers from Upstate, suburbia and New York City support the public financing initiative. As page 7 of the report illustrates, this is the fifth time since January of last year that public financing has garnered the approval of a majority of New Yorkers.
Buffalo News Commends Gov. Cuomo for Budget Proposal
This week, the Buffalo News editorialized in favor of the comprehensive campaign finance reform proposal outlined by Governor Cuomo in his budget address. Although politicians may claim otherwise, the unfortunate reality of the status quo is that special interests expect results from—not just access to—Albany lawmakers, the editorial argues. The lack of effective campaign finance laws and enforcement drives corruption and bad behavior in Albany by keeping incumbents in power. “Would [Assembleymember Dennis] Gabryszak have been so wanton in his behavior if he knew he faced a strong opponent?,” the editorial asks. A system of public financing would transform Albany. Due to the incentive of matching small donations collected by candidates, officeholders would be encouraged to focus on their constituents, not just wealthy donors. Fewer fundraisers and more interaction with constituents could help foster the trust necessary for effective government. “New York has a lot of work to do over the coming months and in years beyond. It can’t do that work as well as New Yorkers need if voters don’t trust officeholders.”
Utica Observer-Dispatch Praises Cuomo Budget Proposal
A Utica Observer-Dispatch editorial this week praised Governor Cuomo for including public campaign financing in his executive budget proposal. Noting the expense of running a campaign in New York and the high reelection rate of incumbents, the editorial reasoned that opportunities for potential challengers are slim. “[I]f your political ambition is bigger than your bank account, forget it. New York’s pay-to-play election system will keep you on the sidelines,” the editorial said. In Maine, where voters approved a Clean Elections Law in 1996, 70 percent of Maine legislators participate in the public financing program, skipping the big fundraisers and mega-donations for small donations. “Let’s hope Cuomo and the Legislature — where Republicans have stated opposition to the initiatives — can make this happen,” the article concluded.
Former Virginia Governor Charged in Federal Corruption Case
On Tuesday, a federal grand jury charged former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, with 14 counts related to gifts the couple accepted from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a Richmond-area businessman. The McDonnells are charged with accepting gifts totaling at least $165,000, including corporate jet travel, a Rolex watch, a Bergdorf-Goodman’s shopping spree, gifts for their two daughters, and a number of Louis Vuitton items. McDonnell maintains that the gifts were legal expressions of “personal generosity” and that he did not perform illegal favors for Williams, then the CEO of Star Scientific, Inc., a dietary supplements company. The indictment alleges that McDonnell promoted Star Scientific products, attending company events, publically praising company products, and hosting the launch of one product – a pill not approved by the Food and Drug Administration – at the Governor’s Mansion. If found guilty, the couple could face a maximum of thirty years in prison.
Super PAC Gearing Up for Possible Clinton White House Bid
With the 2016 election well over two years away, one of the biggest left-leaning Super PACs is aligning itself with Hilary Clinton, even though she has not yet declared her candidacy. The Super PAC, Priorities USA Action, engaged in significant outside spending in favor of President Obama’s reelection. Priorities has brought on both Obama veterans like Jim Messina and Democratic Party heavyweights like Jennifer Granholm. The group plans to court large donors and exceed the $67 million it spent on the 2012 election.
Arrests Made In International Illegal Campaign Donation Scandal
The FBI has arrested Ravneet Singh, owner of a Washington D.C.-based campaign firm; Ernesto Encinas, a former San Diego police detective; and Marco Polo Cortes, a well-known San Diego City Hall lobbyist, for funneling illegal donations into local San Diego elections. The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges that the conspirators aided a Mexican businessman in donating more than $500,000 to San Diego candidates, in violation of federal law prohibiting foreign nationals from donating to political campaigns in the United States at any level. To hide the funds’ source, Singh, Encinas, and Cortes allegedly used shell companies and a straw man as donors. The official complaint did not list the candidates who received funds, but newspaper sources report that they may include the San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, former mayor Bob Filner, and former mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher.
New Super PACs Targeting Secretary of State Races
With the current spotlight on voter ID laws and other election regulations, Democrats and Republicans alike are turning their attention – and their money – on secretary of state races. Secretaries of state usually control implementation of election laws, including running recounts and approving language in ballot measures. Political strategists on both sides of the aisle see secretaries of state as potentially powerful allies for enacting their visions of election law. Further, the races are comparatively inexpensive, offering outside groups the opportunity to make a big impact with relatively little spending. Gregg Phillips, who formerly ran a pro-Gingrich super PAC, is now leading SOS for SoS, a conservative Super PAC formed to support 2014 candidates who back strong voter ID laws and proof of citizenship requirements. Democratic strategists, including Steve Rosenthal, have started the super PAC SoS for Democracy to represent their goals in the 2014 elections. Both groups plan to focus on races in a few key states, including Ohio, Colorado, and Arizona.