Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Former Representatives Voice Support for Public Financing

In a joint op-ed in today’s Times-Union, former New York State Congressmen Sherwood Boehlert and Scott Murphy voiced their support for Governor Cuomo’s plan to enact a system of public financing of elections, an issue he gave prominence in his State of the State address.

Speaking from their experiences as former members of Congress representing both major political parties, Boehlert and Murphy acknowledge the “corrosive role that private money plays in political campaigns and the legislative process,” both in Washington and Albany. The increased cost of running for office in New York means that candidates have to spend more and more time courting special interests to raise money for their campaigns. This has only contributed to Albany’s culture of dependence on big money.

The solution for our state: adopt a system of voluntary public financing of elections with matching funds like we have in New York City. If small donor contributions are matched on a 4-to-1 ratio, politicians would be able to spend less time raising money from lobbyists and special interests, and more time focusing on serving the interests of their constituents.

A recent Siena poll indicates that public financing of elections has broad support among both Republicans and Democrats in New York. Boehlert and Murphy have now added to the growing – and bipartisan chorus of calls for meaningful campaign finance reform in Albany.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Money and Politics This Week

Every Friday, the Brennan Center will be compiling 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 Matthew Ladd.

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

NY Campaign Finance News

1. Gov. Cuomo renewed his support for public campaign financing in New York in his recent State of the State address, calling on the legislature to send him a comprehensive campaign finance reform bill that includes public financing for state and legislative elections. The official text of Gov. Cuomo’s State of the State address can be found here.

2. As Nick Nyhart writes in the Huffington Post, New Yorkers support the public financing of campaigns by wide margin. A new poll conducted by the Siena Research Institute shows overwhelming support for public financing and lower contribution limits: a full 74% of those polled are in favor of public financing of state elections. Siena’s press release highlights campaign finance reform as one of the three proposals in the governor’s address that garnered the most support. The full results can be downloaded here.

3. The Lower Hudson Journal News has joined the latest call for campaign finance reform in New York, mentioning Gov. Cuomo’s backing of public financing of elections in his State of the State, and quoting a election official on the notorious laxity of the state’s campaign finance regime: “Unless you out-and-out stick it in your pocket and walk away, everything’s legal.” The editorial also cites a long litany of former elected officials who have dipped into their campaign accounts—often to pay attorneys hired to handle their legal troubles—for years after they stopped running for public office.

4. The Utica Observer-Dispatch issued a similar editorial on Wednesday, praising Gov. Cuomo for his remarks on public financing in his State of the State, and citing the Campaign Finance Institute on the many incentives that voluntary public financing creates for small donors.

5. NBC New York singled out Gov. Cuomo’s call for public campaign financing as a key point in his address, noting that 24 states already have some form of public financing for elections, that only a fraction of New York’s 19 million residents currently contribute to campaigns, and that campaign finance reform has been a crucial issue since the Pataki era.

6. Likewise, NPR’s New York affiliate reported on a new study by the Campaign Finance Institute, which found that New York is “dead last” in terms of political donations by the public—less than one half of one percent of the state’s population makes campaign contributions for state or legislative elections. Gov. Cuomo’s State of the State address cited the CFI’s research, which is available on the CFI website.

7. Union leaders have rallied around Gov. Cuomo’s promise to back public campaign financing, issuing a joint letter on behalf of the UAW (United Auto Workers), CWA (Communication Workers of America), and SEIU (Service Employees International Union) to express their support. “To have a truly just and equal society, we must have elections that reflect the will of the people, not the privilege of the wealthy few,” the letter states in part. “We need public funding of elections to achieve this goal.”

National Campaign Finance News

8. Citizens United is “the worst campaign finance decision in Supreme Court history,” according to an op-ed by Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 in Politico, in large part because it has unleashed an unprecedented wave of special-interest spending through the creation of super PACs. The op-ed emphasizes the need for a small-donor matching funds system that puts ordinary citizens at the forefront of campaign fundraising, among other legislative remedies such as better disclosure laws, a prohibition on candidate-specific super PACs, and the creation of a stronger enforcement agency to replace the failed FEC.

9. Mitt Romney’s repeated endorsement of Florida’s “Full Sail University,” a for-profit college whose curriculum includes an $80,000 program in “video game art,” has raised some eyebrows after revelations that Full Sail’s chief executive, Bill Heavener, is a major donor to Romney’s campaign as well as the super PAC run by Romney’s former aides. The New York Times also recounts how “Winning the Future,” the super PAC that shores up Newt Gingrich’s campaign, recently received a $5 million lifeline from billionaire casino owner and longtime Gingrich supporter Sheldon Adelson.

Kruger Used Campaign Contributions to Pay Legal Fees

New York’s notoriously weak campaign finance laws were highlighted this week as disclosure reports revealed that former Assemblyman Carl Kruger used nearly $1.4 million from his campaign funds to pay for his legal defense against federal corruption charges. While other states require that candidates set up a legal defense fund, New York allow candidates to use cash from campaign funds pay attorney’s fees.

Susan Lerner from Common Cause/NY notes that “when contributors give to a candidate, they want to support the candidate in his election campaign — not pay for his defense against fraud charges.”

Our former colleague, Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, has pointed out that lawmakers have taken advantage New York's laws by using campaign funds to pay for cars, cell phones, country clubs, sporting events tickets, legal bills, meals and even pet food.

Senator Liz Krueger introduced a bill last year that would address the misuse of campaign funds for personal purposes. Among other restrictions, S3053 would forbid the use campaign funds to “pay attorney’s fees or any costs of defending against any civil or criminal investigation or prosecution for alleged violations of state or federal law.”

Of course, this incident highlights only one of the many problems with our state’s campaign finance laws and we hope that it will be among those addressed when the promised campaign finance bill is introduced.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Governor Reaffirms Commitment to Public Financing

During his State of the State address, Governor Andrew Cuomo reaffirmed his commitment to clean up Albany, telling legislators he would send them a campaign finance reform bill that would include voluntary public financing of elections. The system would be modeled on New York City’s successful matching funds system which has increased the competitiveness of elections, diversity among candidates, and the participation of small donors.

In his written message, the governor called for additional campaign finance reforms, including lowering the state’s sky-high contribution limits, enacting pay-to-play rules, and improving the enforcement of campaign finance laws by creating a new enforcement unit at the Board of Elections. Given the recent corruption scandals involving elected officials and those seeking to do business with the state, this is a positive reform for New Yorkers that would reduce the dependence on money from special interests and help restore trust in state government.

The Brennan Center’s Michael Waldman appeared on NY1 and Capital Tonight to discuss the governor’s speech. "This exciting and vital proposal would make New York a national example of how to revitalize our democracy," Waldman said. "Meaningful campaign reform would curb corruption and boost accountability. It is the single most important next step to transform Albany. We welcome the Governor’s leadership on this issue and are looking forward to helping him make these reforms a reality."