Despite widespread support from grassroots organizations and the vast majority of voters, campaign finance reform in New York failed to pass the state Senate this legislative session. The final vote paints a clear picture of partisanship — 30 Democrats in favor, 2 against, and 30 Republicans against.
Senate Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos voiced his opposition to the bill from the moment Governor Cuomo first announced his intention to get the reform process underway.
Skelos even wrote an op-ed piece, printed in the Albany Times Union, in which he broke down the rationale behind the GOP’s obstruction of reform, despite the levels of corruption that have plagued New York politics for years.
The op-ed centered around three countervailing arguments to the reform process: businesses oppose reform, the new public donor matching system will cost $286 million a year, and New York City’s reformed electoral system has led to more corruption.
Skelos’ first point runs contrary to a poll conducted by the Committee for Economic Development. Statewide reform measures included public financing of elections, in which 72 percent of New York business leaders were in favor.
Skelos’ estimate for the cost of the reformed electoral system was also knocked down by a follow-up assessment issued by the Campaign Finance Institute. His estimate departs drastically from that of the nonpartisan CFI, which issued a report estimating the costs of elections ranging from $26-41 million annually.
The CFI offers this rationale behind the disparity:
“The Senate Republicans simply assumed that every race for every office in the state would have two candidates drawing the maximum permissible amount of public funds for the general election. In a quarter of the districts, the paper also imagined primary challengers and incumbents getting another dose of maximum public funding.”
In reality, the original price range is supported by more tangible evidence, and, according to Ian Vandewalker of the Brennan Center for Justice:
“The higher estimate of $41 million is based on the assumption that a public funds match would encourage so many new donors to give that every candidate would double the number of his or her donors as compared to 2012.”
That $41 million is still only 0.03% of the state’s budget, and if reform did pass it would open up new sources of funding for elections outside of the general election fund. This includes casino licensing fees and other measures that would not hurt New York taxpayers or curb funding from more important areas.
As to Skelos’ last point, that reform has not deterred corruption in New York City, according to Vandewalker:
“The handful of candidates who have tried to game the system have been caught by sharp-eyed staff at the Campaign Finance Board, and denied public funds.”
The Center for Competitive Politics issued a report in 2011 citing 24 instances of untamed corruption in New York City since electoral reform passed. The Brennan Center for Justice responded by stating:
“Several cases had nothing to do with public financing, including one state legislator who never participated in the city system. Half of the cases involve no wrongdoing: They either describe activity that is legal and not corrupt or cite investigations that never found a crime or election law violation.
Finally, there are a number of examples of candidates attempting to violate the rules of the city’s public funding system. Every campaign in this last category was caught by the city’s effective enforcement agency and either fined or denied public funds.”
As the reform debate drags on in New York state, it’s important that New Yorkers keep in mind the concrete facts rather than unsubstantiated opinions. Something has to give if the state will ever have a legislature that is truly responsible to the people.