Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Money in Politics This Week

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 Syed Zaidi. 

For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag #moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.

NEW YORK

Vandewalker: Public Financing “Pilot” Program Designed to Implode
Writing in Newsday, Ian Vandewalker, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, praised New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli for opting out of the state’s poorly crafted public financing “pilot” program. Despite calls by the public and several good government groups to comprehensively reform New York’s campaign finance laws, Governor Cuomo and the legislative leadership failed to deliver a real public financing system, instead agreeing upon an experiment limited to the 2014 comptroller elections. The state’s notoriously dysfunctional Board of Elections was empowered to implement the law for this year’s upcoming comptroller race. “[T]he system was designed to implode,” said Vandewalker. Furthermore, the bill, which was passed in a state budget agreement in early April, fails to lower sky-high campaign contribution limits, close campaign funding loopholes, or mandate greater disclosure of independent expenditures by special interest groups.  

Watertown Daily Times: Comptroller Right to Opt-out of Public Financing “Pilot” Program
The Watertown Daily Times praised Comptroller DiNapoli for not participating in New York’s public financing pilot program for election campaigns. Although DiNapoli has been a strong supporter of reform, he said the limited measure introduced during last-minute budget negotiations in early April, was “designed to fail, by lawmakers who either do not really believe in, or don’t understand, public campaign financing at all.” If implemented, the half-hearted effort at reform, would have allowed opponents to point to the poorly crafted model as an example of the failure of public financing. It has unfortunately already provided an excuse for Governor Cuomo to disband the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. Calling the reform an inadequate response to the corrosive epidemic of corruption in the New York legislature, the Watertown Daily Times said that “lawmakers should go back to the drawing board.”

Federal Court Overturns New York’s Aggregate Contribution Cap Following McCutcheon v. FEC
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty issued a five-page ruling in New York Progress and Protection PAC v. Walsh, overturning New York State’s aggregate campaign contribution cap on donations to independent political groups. New York State restricts the total amount one person may contribute to all candidates and political action committees to $150,000 per election cycle. The case, brought by the New York Progress and Protection PAC—a conservative super PAC that sought to prop up Republican mayoral nominee Joe Lhota last year—argued that Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon had the right to contribute more than $150,000 to independent groups that supported Joe Lhota. Judge Crotty indicated that although he was obliged to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, which recently invalidated federal aggregate contribution limits, he disagreed with the court’s analysis and lamented that regular citizens “are too often drowned out by the few who have great resources.” Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said that “It's not just the American public that is unhappy with these decisions but a lot of the judiciary below the [U.S] Supreme Court.”

Friday, April 11, 2014

Money in Politics This Week

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 Syed Zaidi. 

For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag #moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.

NEW YORK

Governor Could Have Responded to McCutcheon Decision with Reform
In a Journal News op-ed, Lawrence Norden and Frederick A.O Schwarz of the Brennan Center, wrote that Governor Cuomo’s refusal to pass meaningful reform in the state budget was especially disheartening in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. Despite his promise to pass comprehensive public financing reform for all state elections, the governor approved a narrow and ineffective pilot program for the Comptroller’s office only. This “reform” package did nothing to reduce campaign contribution limits or close loopholes that disproportionately benefit incumbents. Last year, the Moreland Commission found New York’s campaign finance laws to be wholly inadequate. McCutcheon has the potential to exacerbate the problem if New York’s aggregate limits are struck down—which would allow a single individual to donate over $2.4 million to political candidates and committees in an election cycle. In this environment, another corruption scandal is inevitable.

Campaign Finance Laws Empower Donor Class Over Middle Class
In conjunction with the U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down aggregate contribution limits, the lack of real reform in the New York State budget empowers the 1 percent, wrote Katrina vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post. The donor class now has greater opportunities to buy access to our elected officials. “We live in a world where…public policy is auctioned off to the highest bidder,” vanden Heuvel said. The systematic dismantling of campaign finance laws explains why we’ve failed to make progress on other issues—everything “from lower taxes to deregulation.” Nevertheless, there are ways that citizens can fight back against the avalanche of big money in politics, ranging from federal legislation to a constitutional amendment, all outlined in the article.  

Poughkeepsie Journal: Moreland Commission Should Not Be Shutdown
Last week, the Poughkeepsie Journal criticized Governor Cuomo’s decision to dismantle the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, stating that its “job is far from done.” With more than 30 state lawmakers who have been embroiled in legal or ethical dilemmas since 2000, the state needs an independent watchdog with subpoena powers to not only examine individual instances of wrongdoing, but also to propose solutions to systemic problems of corruption that plague New York. In its 2013 report, the commission outlined examples of illegal and unethical behavior by campaign contributors and lawmakers looking for big checks. However, it did not identify the perpetrators by name. It was expecting to deliver another report by the end of this year and refer the names to law enforcement. “At bare minimum, the state must let the panel complete these tasks.” The U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, has taken possession of the commission’s files and indicated that his office will investigate any evidence of corruption.

“Reform” Deliberately Designed to Fail
In City & State, Morgan Pehme called out New York State political leaders—the “four men in the room”—for creating a fa├žade of good government reform, while perpetuating a status quo which greatly benefits incumbents. The budget adopted last week constructed a new pilot public financing program for the state comptroller’s race. The only problem; it was “concocted deliberately” so that it would fail. The notoriously dysfunctional state board of elections was allocated the responsibility for managing this program. It had to be prepared to implement the law in time for the approaching 2014 elections. Pehme explained that the failure of public financing would allow incumbents to claim that “this experiment should never” be attempted again. It is no surprise that Comptroller DiNapoli, a stern supporter of public financing, choose to opt-out of the ill-crafted proposal. Legislators now need to go back to the drawing board to create a comprehensive reform proposal that includes public financing for all state races and adequate funds for enforcement.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Money in Politics This Week

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 Syed Zaidi. 

For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag #moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.

NEW YORK

New York Times: Most Fundamental Reform Missing from State Budget
Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders passed New York’s 2014-15 budget last week without a comprehensive small donor public matching system—instead establishing a very limited pilot public financing program for the state comptroller’s race in 2014. Adding to this lapse in leadership, Governor Cuomo said he will disband the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, labeling the narrow ethics reforms in the budget a triumph. This was an especially disappointing development in light of the myriad of corruption scandals that engulfed several legislators in recent years, including three of the last five Senate Majority Leaders or Co-leaders. Newspapers throughout the state saw through the spin. The New York Times opined that the budget’s inadequate ethics reforms do not “come close to attacking the root of the corruption problem” in Albany. “The most fundamental reform,” the Times continued, namely public matching funds for small donations in all state races, “is missing.” 

Syracuse Post-Standard: Public Financing “Pilot” Program a Cop-out
The Syracuse Post-Standard reiterated the shortfalls of the 2014-15 New York budget in an editorial last week. Calling restricting public financing to the comptroller’s office a “cop-out,” the upstate newspaper said that New York City’s successful model demonstrates that a “pilot” program is unnecessary. If such a system would have been implemented, it could have enabled candidates who can’t garner big checks from special interests to compete with small dollar donations from constituents. Unfortunately for now, the status quo, which allows incumbents to build up their war chest to scare off any potential competitors, remains intact.

Albany Times-Union: State Elected Officials Failed to Address NY’s “Most Glaring Failure”
On Tuesday, the Albany Times-Union termed Governor Cuomo’s failure to pass comprehensive ethics reform the state government’s “most glaring failure.” Last year, the Moreland Commission—which the governor appointed to examine New York’s corruption and campaign finance laws—issued a thorough report detailing the legal and ethical breaches that have become so commonplace in Albany over the past few years. In response to the inadequacy of the current system to address pay-to-play politics, the commission recommended several reforms including public funding to match small donations. Unfortunately, Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders “concluded that reform is appropriate only on a very small scale, and only as long as it doesn’t apply to themselves.” The outcome is surprising considering that most legislators, as well as the governor, claimed to support full public financing for all races.

Crain’s New York Business: Ethics Deal Does Little to Deter Corruption
On April 4, Crain’s New York Business criticized New York lawmakers for their inability to deliver on ethics reform. “At least 30 [state legislators] have left office since 1999 because of transgressions ranging from inflating their expenses to sexual harassment to taking bribes,” the editorial stated. Yet the reform provision in the budget made only minor changes to state corruption laws and delegated slightly greater enforcement authority to the state Board of Elections. It did nothing to address the problem of legislators pushing bills or steering funds at the request of special interests and campaign contributors. The decision to eliminate the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was especially troubling, Crain’s said—just as the investigators “had dug their teeth into a plethora of questionable dealings.”

Upstate Newspapers: Ethics Reforms Insufficient to Address Corruption
The Rochester-based Democrat & Chronicle called Governor Cuomo’s inability to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform his administration’s “most notable first-term failure.” The alternative to public financing for all races—a limited measure for the state comptroller election in 2014—was too little and too late, given the election year. The Buffalo News concurred, saying the plan was a “laughingstock.” The dysfunctional state Board of Elections is inadequately prepared to implement a public financing program for the comptroller’s office this election cycle. Moreover, sky-high campaign contribution limits, and loopholes for special interests hoping to get noticed by politicians, are still the norm in Albany for the foreseeable future. Overall, the budget bill was not a compromise for anyone, it was a disappointment.

Letter to Governor Cuomo from New York LEAD Member

Letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo from Daniel A. Simon, a member of the New York Leadership for Accountable Government
_______________________________________________

Governor Cuomo:

I am a member of NY-LEAD, New York Leadership for Accountable Government (I express only my own opinions here). I attended the luncheon in New York City a little over a year ago when you spoke to our group so convincingly about the need for public campaign financing and its importance to restoring trust in government. That expression of such strong, unqualified support makes the near-complete capitulation on this issue in this year’s budget all the more galling, immensely frustrating, and devastatingly disappointing.

You talked about the need for reform supporters to put pressure on public officials to move this issue forward. I believe that such organizations have more than held up their part of the bargain. They have done their best to convince our legislators through persuasion on policy and demonstration of constituent support, and raised the possibilities of primary and general election challenges. Poll after poll shows the public strongly supporting reform, with public campaign financing popular across the political spectrum. There is no inherent reason why this should be a partisan issue; a vote on this subject should be an easy one for any public-minded official, not a tough one.

And I find it inexplicable that the Moreland Commission, which was tasked with investigating corruption in the political process, has been terminated. If the suspected influence of money in politics justified the commission in the first place, it is hard to fathom a non-political reason to suspend its operations now, before its mission has been completed.

With the public squarely on the side of reform, there comes a time when our elected officials must stop talking and lead. In my opinion, the time for action has long passed. There is no good reason not to get comprehensive campaign finance reform done, and there are no excuses for further delays. It is increasingly difficult for people like me who care deeply about our democracy to support those whose actions fail to demonstrate a serious commitment to reform, regardless of what they say on the matter.

Now is the time to back up words with action. Beyond the need to restore confidence in our state government, the nation desperately needs a model for a campaign finance system that reduces the dependence of our elected officials on big money which currently permeates and warps our government. The public is with us on this, but it requires leaders in Albany who will move beyond talk and take the necessary measures to get the job done.

I still hope you will do so.

Sincerely,


Daniel A. Simon