McCutcheon on the Hudson

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Yesterday’s US Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC removed limits on the total amount that rich donors could contribute to all candidates in an electoral cycle. The need for a voluntary system of public campaign financing for candidates to run with no-strings-attached clean money is now greater than ever. With the recent passage of the state budget, Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders missed an opportunity to enact just such a system. What New Yorkers got was a watered down partial public financing system for Comptroller races only. That minor “reform” does not change the basic picture: New York has the best government money can buy. The “reform,” based on New York City’s system, throws good public money after bad private money, and was justifiably opposed by Senate Republicans (who have offered no alterative to the corruption-inducing status quo). It is inferior to the partial public financing system in place in New York City because it has no limits on the amount of private money a candidate may spend. The New York City system caps private spending for candidates who opt for public financing at the same level as the maximum public grant they can receive. The “reform” does nothing to halt the Governor’s voracious gobbling of contributions from the super rich (who are amply rewarded with tax cuts in the budget). Forty-five percent of his re-election campaign fund came from donations of $40,000 or more, eighty percent from donations of $10,000 or more, and less than one percent from donations of under $1,000. Does anybody believe that the last minute pro charter school changes in the state budget had nothing to do with the nearly $400,000 in donations to Cuomo from hedge fund operators who are board members of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy and the $5 million attack ad campaign against Mayor de Blasio by a pro charter PAC funded by billionaires? Watered down partial public financing is akin to presidential primary matching funds: a reform that doesn’t reform. It is the campaign finance reform equivalent of Obamacare (compared to Medicare for All, Obamacare does too little to meet the health care needs of millions of Americans, and nothing at all for millions more who neither qualify for it nor for Medicaid). And like Obamacare, it makes genuine reform—real progress—harder to achieve as advocates for genuine change will be told ‘we did campaign finance reform; go away.’ New Yorkers deserve better. If we could start from scratch—with the aim of eliminating pay-to-play and other corrupt practices—what might a redesigned campaign funding system look like? We’re confident that it would appear identical to the systems in place in Maine and Arizona, also known as Clean Money, Clean Elections. Clean Money provides full public financing for qualified candidates, removes “dirty” private money, tightens financial reporting, applies equally to all political parties, and mandates that candidates who receive public campaign funding participate in debates. In Arizona and Maine, candidates qualify for equal public campaign grants by raising a reasonable number of $5 contributions from voters in their district to demonstrate support. The $5 donations go to the state’s Clean Money Fund. The grants are sufficient to get the candidate’s message to all voters. Candidates who opt for public money may not raise private money. They only use clean public money. Supporters of partial public financing will likely accuse us of having the ‘perfect be the enemy of the good.’ ‘This is the best Albany can do, you’re asking too much; be realistic.’ Nonsense. Arizona is more progressive than New York? Were the supporters of pseudo-reform to level with New Yorkers, to sponsor a genuine, open debate on the competing proposals, Clean Money would win hands down. Fortunately for New Yorkers, there is a Clean Money bill in both the Assembly (A4116-2013) and the Senate (S4501-2013). Ask your legislators to press for hearings, debate and votes on these bills. New Yorkers deserve no less. Howie Hawkins was the Green candidate for New York Governor in 2010 and is seeking the Green nomination in 2014.  Steve Breyman is Environmental Protection Agency Administrator in the Green Shadow Cabinet.  

Steve Breyman is a former William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the US State Department. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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