Leaders from New York good government groups Citizen Action and Common Cause were joined by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and New York City Comptroller-elect Scott Stringer in a “tele-town hall” meeting on the phone and via live stream Tuesday in support of publicly financed elections. The call was an effort to encourage citizens at the grass roots level to speak up and demand publicly financed elections in New York state.
The advocates are looking for a system in New York to use public funds to match small donations allowing candidates to run with support from small donors instead of wealthy corporate interests. Small donor matching would be an effort to end the system of “legal bribery” that takes place in the current system, which proponents of publicly financed elections say puts corporate interests over the needs of the people. The groups are looking for the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption’s Dec. 1 report to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to include a recommendation to adopt a publicly financed elections system in New York.
“I think we can all agree we have a big problem in New York,” DiNapoli said. “There is too much big money influencing our political process. That big money is drowning out the voices of everyday New Yorkers and it’s distorting our priorities. To me the solution is simple; we need campaign finance reform including publicly funded elections.”
DiNapoli pointed to New York City’s system of publicly funded elections as a good example of how things should be run on the state level. He said the system can improve the elections process by getting more small donors involved, encouraging competition between candidates and leveling the playing field on who is eligible to run.
“I think, as someone who has been a candidate many times if I could spend a lot less time on fundraising and a lot more time on doing the people’s business there would be an immediate payback and an immediate increase in productivity from our elected officials if we could have the kind of public financing campaign that puts an emphasis on small donors and has matching funds,” DiNapoli said. “And the time for change is now.”
Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action, raised the point that some people say New York can’t afford to use public funds on campaigns with major demands on the budget like heath care and education being underfunded.
“Keep in mind New York has a very large budget, a $135 billion budget, I’ve seen reliable studies that have indicated that the annualized cost of having the kinds of elections to be publicly financed as we’re talking about would be anywhere between $26 [million] and $41 million,” DiNapoli said. “To me in the context of a multi-billion dollar budget, spending $20 [million] or $30 [million] or even $40 million, that’s really a small investment with a tremendous payback.”
Stringer’s campaign for New York City comptroller used the city’s public financing system, which he said he couldn’t have won the election without.
“Nine weeks before the election I had to deal with a self-funder who spent $10.5 million in just nine weeks,” Stringer said. “The goal was to drown out my campaign and outspend me into the ground and if it were not for the New York City campaign finance program the fact that we could continue to raise money — $50 or $100 or $200 at a time — knowing that money would be matched six to one giving us a shot at this race we would have been doomed from the start … campaign finance leveling the playing field is critical for competitive elections.”
During the call’s question and answer portion ,one caller, Gregory from Manhattan, asked what could be done about the potential misuse of funds by candidates using the public financing system.
“One of the things that happens with an effective public financing system that has strong enforcement and good regulations is that there are clear guidance on what you can spend the money for and what not to spend the money for,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. “There is regular reporting on the more limited fundraising that is done and the expenditures. Public money isn’t provided unless the candidate is abiding by the rules and keeping track of the money they do collect, keeping track of their expenditures in a responsible way and making that information available to the agency that is administering the money.”
Lerner said that after the campaign there is an audit process to make sure there is no misuse of the campaign funds. According to Lerner, New York City uses a meticulous system looking at every scrap of paper of the expenditure records of the candidate. Connecticut, another place where publicly funded elections are in place, uses a more selective sampling system.
Another caller, Sandra from Rochester, asked how after all the fraud and incitements how can we find candidates who people are willing to campaign for and donate to with the cynicism that has been bread in the voting public by the current campaign system.
“One of the things we’ve seen in New York City where we have over 20 years of experience with a matching fund system is that properly calibrated public financing of elections encourages good people with real community backing to run,” said Scharff. “It makes a difference and when you have more people who really are representative of the communities they want to represent it creates a stronger bond and it encourages more people to have faith in the system.”
Lerner said she looks to the Moreland Commission to ensure a public financing system makes its way to New York state.
“We are hopeful that the co-chairs of the [Moreland] Commission and all of its members that includes district attorneys from across New York, academics and experts will give a resounding endorsement to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform including a public financing of elections system,” Lerner said.