Getting Democracy Back in NY State, Step 1: Campaign Finance Law Reform

News

Earlier this year, I had an interview with a mayoral campaign, and I asked the Deputy Campaign Director why he worked on campaigns. His answer still rings true for me: “Because getting the right people elected is the single most important decision we can make it in a democratic system.”

And how can we get the right people elected? Well, making it so they’re not lap dogs to only the rich and powerful could be a start. A Times editorial, written with the help with the independent watchdog group NYPIRG, lays out the sordid details of just how lax campaign finance laws are in the state of New York. Here in the city, the laws are much more strict; but Albany is still ruled by the iron law of cash.

Here’re the (frightening) numbers:

  • The average national limit for contributions in governor’s races is around $7,500 per election. In New York, the limit, if you can call it that, is $55,900 per person, more than the average New Yorker’s salary. The limits are high for other races as well — $15,000 per donor for a Senate race and $7,600 for an Assembly candidate.
  • Donations from individuals to political parties are limited to $94,300 per year, but there are no limits at all for contributions to something called party housekeeping, or party building.
  • New York law requires politicians to use campaign funds for campaigns. But most incumbents do not have to spend a lot since, thanks to gerrymandering, service in New York’s Legislature is almost a lifetime sinecure.

Making democracy work better for average New Yorkers, instead of special interests and folks who have the hundreds of thousands of dollars to give away, has to start with with reforming campaign finance law. The Times suggests:

¶Bring campaign contribution limits in line with those in most other states. That means no person or corporation could give more than a few thousand dollars to any one candidate.

¶Require politicians to fully and more precisely identify donors, including “bundlers” who give huge amounts by organizing groups of individual donors.

¶Get rid of the “housekeeping” accounts, which just give the rich even more political advantage.

¶No more slush funds. Politicians should spend campaign contributions only on offices, mailings, signs, ads — the real stuff of elections.

¶Create a workable enforcement unit at the Board of Elections and give it the authority to levy fines that bite. Refer the worst cases for prosecution.

The good news is that Senators Schneiderman and Squadron in the NY State Senate have introduced ethics legislation to bring about some of these changes. You can find out more about the legislation and give your own State Senator a ring to support the legislation at just about the only thing that works in Albany: the NYSenate.gov website.