By Karen Scharff
There is an easy way to tell what is the biggest threat to corruption in Albany. The big money interests and others who want to maintain the pay-to-play culture are attacking only one of the many reforms suggested by the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption: public financing of elections. If the people who benefit from the current system are fighting to stop only one reform, that’s a good sign it is the one that will make a difference. In fact, public financing is essential to change Albany’s pay-to-play legal bribery culture and give more power to voters.
Most people can afford to give only small donations to candidates running for public office, but campaigning is expensive. So the only way for candidates to raise enough, and not depend on big money and lobbyists, is if the small donations are matched by public money.
How does this stop pay-to-play? Now, too many candidates depend on big contributions from big-money interests, who expect tax breaks and other favorable legislation in return. This system is legal bribery.
A public financing system puts a limit on how much any one individual can give, so candidates have to rely on small donors and the public match. They have to go out and raise money from the voters instead of relying on the wealthy few.
I’ve spent 30 years working to pass bills in Albany that help ordinary New Yorkers. I have watched the role of big-money interests get worse and worse and the cost to taxpayers of this legal bribery escalate into billion of dollars.
The only objective study found the cost of public financing to be about $60 million a year for the matching funds plus a very strong enforcement system for all campaign spending. That’s about $3 per New Yorker a year – worth it when you consider the possible savings.
Of course, public financing can’t prevent all corruption. If we wait for perfection, we will never do anything. The real question is whether it will make things better. Clearly, public financing will end the current system, which encourages corruption. It will replace it with a system that encourages candidates to depend on and focus on the interests of the voters they represent.
The real reason opponents are scared is because they won’t be able to keep doing business the old, corrupt pay-to-play way. Instead, power will be returned to where it should be, to the voters, to the people.
Can we win it? The defenders of pay to play are counting on the public doing nothing because they think we aren’t smart enough to figure out why it matters. Well, consider this. Whatever it is you think state government should or shouldn’t be doing, with public financing you have a much better chance of having your voice and your neighbors’ voices heard and not drowned out by big money.
Karen Scharff is executive director of Citizen Action New York.