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New York must act now to close loophole on campaign donations

There are 17 days, folks. That’s 17 days to call your state legislator. Seventeen days to send them an email. Seventeen days to let them know you’re watching.

In 17 days, state lawmakers will take off for their summer vacations, and there’s one thing there is no hope they’ll change unless you get mad enough to demand it: a campaign finance loophole that allows some political donors to shovel unlimited amounts of money to candidates.

It’s the dirty little secret in New York State politics that everybody knows and no one will fix. Campaign limits might as well mean squat, and the politicians don’t care to change that fact.

It’s a loophole so famous it’s even got a nickname: the LLC loophole.

I know. That snoozer of a name may very well be one of the reasons it’s remained on the books for nearly two decades despite calls for change from everyone from good-government groups to the governor, who, by the way, has reaped his own campaign cash from the very same loophole.

Here’s the deal. Corporations in New York State are limited to donating up to $5,000 in campaign contributions in any year. Individuals can donate up to $60,800 to candidates in statewide races. But limited liability companies – those LLCs – can effectively donate as much as they want. That’s because a 1996 ruling by the Board of Elections found that limited liability companies were “individuals” bound by the same restrictions as people, not corporations. But there’s no limit on the number of LLCs a person can set up and use to funnel campaign contributions.

Everyone from developers to cable companies has taken advantage of this, often masking their own identities with vague company names.

“While perfectly legal, this loophole dramatically undermines the limits already in place,” wrote members of a state commission tasked with rooting out public corruption before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo shut it down.

Want to understand why Albany is so marred by corruption that lawmakers wear wires and two of the most powerful men in the state are under indictment? Start with what’s legal.

Lax campaign finance rules have turned our state government into a circus where the ringmasters aren’t the voters or even the elected officials, but those with the money. Even the honest lawmakers have to keep up.

“This is not simply a matter of criminal misconduct, although the string of recent corruption prosecutions demonstrates that such misconduct is a saddening problem,” the Moreland Commission wrote. “The real scandal is what remains legal. New York’s campaign finance laws and practices enable special interests and wealthy individuals to flood the political process with enormous amounts of money.”

Why does this matter now? Because a series of corruption arrests has finally sparked real discussion of ethics reform. Yet lawmakers appear paralyzed by their own self-interest. A bill passed by the Assembly to close this loophole has stalled in the State Senate.

This is something we can do now. Not a year from now. Not after the next politician gets led off in cuffs.

Campaign finance reform may be complicated, but closing this loophole isn’t. It’s a matter of letting politicians know you’re not going to take it anymore. That’s up to you.