I heard a lot about Albany’s “pay-to-play” culture before I took office as a state Senator last month. Still, it was a culture shock to see it in action. For example, there is a practice that allows lobbyists to call senators off the Senate floor during session for face-to-face meetings about bills. Talk about being at the beck and call of special interests.
On the other hand, lobbyists can sometimes provide invaluable information. Plus, recent ethics reforms have imposed disclosure requirements and limited gifts to legislators. No more three-course steak dinners. Today a lobbyist is restricted to buying a legislator a cup of coffee.
Even with new ethics guidelines, however, Albany’s pay-to-play culture won’t change until we reform our campaign finance laws.
New York’s contribution limits are among the highest in the nation, permitting individuals to contribute up to $60,800 to a statewide candidate in New York — about 12 times the national median and more than 10 times the limit for a presidential candidate.
Also, corporate contributions, while banned in nearly half of all states, are permitted in New York.
In addition, a loophole allows unlimited donations to political party “housekeeping accounts” from individuals and corporations, accounting for $53.2 million in contributions between 1999 and 2006.
Fortunately, we have a widely celebrated model of a fair and functional campaign finance law right here in New York City. Under the jurisdiction of the independent and nonpartisan Campaign Finance Board, candidates for any elective office in the city may qualify for significant public financing — in part by relying on relatively small donors. Contribution limits are similar to those of federal elections.
The city’s law strictly prohibits donations from corporations. Contributors of $100 or more are required to disclose certain information that would reveal any potential conflicts of interest and/or business with the city. Elected officials are beholden to their constituents, not to big-money donors.
To paraphrase Will Rogers, it’s no wonder Albany has the best politicians money can buy. What’s more, the out-of-control campaign spending in Albany has a corrosive effect on public confidence and participation in government.
The high contribution limits are seen as the cause of low donor participation rates in New York State, particularly among small donors. In the 2010 elections, only 6 percent of candidates’ money came from donors who gave $250 or less. In contrast, 78 percent came from nonparty organizations (such as PACs) and individuals who gave $1,000 or more. Less than one half of 1 percent of the population contributed at any level.
Contrast this level of involvement with that in New York City’s system. City residents’ participation rate in the campaign finance system at the local level is more than three times that of state residents. It has been predicted that the number of small donors under a state system similar to New York City’s would increase from the current 6 percent to 54 percent.
I am confident that, were New York State to implement a system similar to New York City’s, the state Legislature would finally begin to move forward with many long-overdue progressive initiatives, including expanding rent regulations, enacting a universal, single-payer healthcare system for the state, and ending the enormously destructive prison industrial complex.
Yet, we are making progress on this front. In his 2013 State of the State address, Governor Cuomo committed to passing legislation requiring broader disclosure of political expenditures, lower contribution limits and public financing of state elections based on New York City’s program.
Two of the state Senate’s three conference leaders have pledged their support, and together our conferences can provide the necessary votes for victory.
And Cecilia Tkaczyk, a Democrat, was just elected to the state Senate on a platform of public campaign financing. She joins me and my Democratic Senate colleagues, including Daniel Squadron, in this fight.
It won’t be easy. Without these reforms, those who would lose power will continue to wield undue influence. That is why I am asking you to add your voice to this crucial issue. Sign up to support campaign finance reform with public financing of elections at www.citizenactionny.org and ask your friends and family from around the state to do the same. Let’s make it so Albany has the best politicians money can’t buy.