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Election reform might be progress, but don’t call New York ‘progressive’

Rod Watson

It’s a measure of the disappointment with the handiwork of a commission appointed to reform campaign funding in New York State that some real reformers are begging state lawmakers to call a special session to fix the panel’s proposals.

They make that call knowing full well that the State Legislature can always make things worse.

Yet while the proposed reforms inarguably are a step in the right direction, New York was so far behind that taking one giant leap still leaves it short of where some other states have been for years when it comes to publicly funding elections and having the government match small-dollar contributions.

Of course, you couldn’t really have expected New York to go all the way to empower citizens over special interests, despite its Wizard of Oz reputation as a truly progressive state. Pull back the curtain – it just recently got around to voting reforms that other states enacted years ago – and you’ll find a government just as interested in self-preservation and protecting the status quo as any other bureaucracy.

That’s reflected now in proposed campaign contribution limits that, while greatly reduced, still allow New York’s fat cats to spend more to buy their favored politician than is allowed in most other states that have limits. The new $18,000 cap for statewide offices, while down from an obscene $69,700, is still three times the national average of $6,126, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Or, put another way, donors still can give more to New York candidates than they can to those running for the highest office in the land.

"It’s higher than for any candidate running for president of the United States," said Alex Camarda, senior policy adviser for Reinvent Albany. (Donors can give a maximum of $2,700 each primary and general election to federal candidates, according to the Federal Elections Commission.)

Similarly, the new $10,000 limit for donations to Senate candidates, and the $6,000 cap on buying Assembly members, are well above the state Senate national average of $2,947 and the lower house average of $2,539. Costs in New York are higher, but they’re not that much higher.

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Those are among the major shortcomings pointed out by groups such as Reinvent Albany, Fair Elections for New York and the Brennan Center for Justice, but they’re far from the only ones. Camarda said unlimited amounts still can be given to party slush funds known as "housekeeping" accounts and donors still can give more than $100,000 to party committees, which can then aid candidates.

And even these limited reforms don’t fully kick in until 2026, leaving plenty of time for Albany’s incumbent protection racket to flourish – as evidenced by the big-money fundraisers taking place this holiday season – while the whole thing still will be overseen by the state Board of Elections rather than an outside entity that might actually care about enforcement.

Another major weakness is the lack of a "severability" clause that could protect parts of the bill if other parts are overturned by the courts for minor technical reasons, said Lawrence Norden, director of election reform at the Brennan Center. Norden said such a clause exists in virtually every major finance reform bill in the country – but not this one.

And, just for good measure, the bill takes a swipe at minor parties – which can highlight issues the major parties would rather ignore – by raising the threshold for getting on the ballot to heights some of them may not be able to meet. That stifles, rather than enhances, democracy.

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No wonder Fair Elections – a coalition of more than 200 good-government groups, labor organizations, businesses and community groups – is pushing the governor and Legislature to fix the bill’s shortcoming before it becomes law by default Dec. 22.

And no wonder Camarda, when pressed to give the package a letter grade, came up with a D+.

But he said that doesn’t capture the nuances of the plan, which obviously does some good things. The public funding will help more grassroots people run for office. And the matching grants will encourage more people to donate and counteract the influence of special interests, knowing that their small contributions will leverage matching funds at ratios of up to 12-1.

Still, it was in large part an opportunity missed.

"It could have been much more than it was," Camarda said.

He’s right – but only if we lived in a truly progressive state.

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