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Public needs to take back campaigns

It’s not surprising that as state government reels from another scandal just months after the scandal of an incumbent governor raising eight times as much as his GOP challenger – making the election moot – the most promising push for reform comes not from Albany, but from Buffalo.

Not that Mayor Byron Brown – who outspent opponents by a combined 5-to-1 and still had money left – may be any more committed to public funding of campaigns than Andrew Cuomo. The governor talks a good game, but last year accepted a sham proposal limited only to the State Comptroller’s Office and lacking any real enforcement teeth.

The mayor, similarly, is showing symptoms of incumbent’s syndrome, raising cautionary flags about everything from wealthy candidates opting out to the impact that public funding might have on using campaign money in nonelection years. These are typical excuses offered to protect incumbents.

Fortunately, by putting the Partnership for the Public Good on a committee to produce a public funding plan, the Common Council has taken the process away from politicians and given reform a better than average chance.

The partnership includes some of the same grass-roots groups that changed the conversation about downtown development to give us a viable waterfront, overcoming the resistance of entrenched powers. The coalition of 181 groups – from VOICE Buffalo to the Buffalo Urban League and PUSH Buffalo – has both the expertise and the reach to finally do the same for public funding of campaigns, dragging reluctant politicians along in its wake.

It also may have to drag some taxpayers whose knee-jerk reaction is that politicians already take enough of their money. They ignore the costs of the current system in which campaign donors exact far more in sweetheart deals that taxpayers end up paying for.

“You don’t want your politicians beholden to special interests,” said Megan Connelly, the partnership’s director of policy advancement and a committee co-chairwoman.

The choice is simple: Lobbyists can pay for politicians, or the public can pay by matching small-donor contributions. Whoever pays will call the tune.

Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., who has pushed the concept, would have such a system funded through traffic fines so that taxpayers don’t feel put upon. Other cities have used everything from candidate and lobbyist filing fees to budget appropriations – the latter a recognition that putting elections back in the hands of average citizens is a public good that is well worth the cost. It also would enable more ordinary citizens to run for office without worrying about raising obscene sums. That worry is a primary impediment, said Citizen Action’s Jim Anderson. “The first thing they’re gonna say is, ‘Aw, man, I ain’t got that kind of money,’ ” said Anderson, a co-chairman of the panel.

With a few dollars per taxpayer of public financing, they would have that kind of money – and they’d get it from those they’re supposed to represent.

How threatening is that to the status quo? Just look at who opposes public funding. Pro-business groups such as Unshackle Upstate say, “Taxpayer dollars have no place in political campaigns.” With the Supreme Court equating dollars with speech, what they’re really saying is, “Taxpayer voices have no place in political campaigns.”

That, as much as anything, illustrates why Buffalo needs this reform.

email: rwatson@buffnews.com