A group of elected officials and activists hosted a forum at the Nyack Library to talk about campaign finance reform.
State Sen. David Carlucci, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, Center for Working Families Executive Director Dave Palmer and Common Cause New York Executive Director Susan Lerner spoke at the event, which was moderated by Jesse Laymon, campaigns manager for Citizen Action of New York.
The group spoke a lot about the dangers that come with large donations made to politicians from individuals or special interest groups, as well as legislation that would alter campaign funding throughout the state. The legislation follows the method used in New York City and Connecticut, and uses public funding to match donations up to a certain amount. In New York City, donations made up to $175 or $250, depending on the level of the election, are matched at a six-to-one rate, meaning a $10 donation from someone actually nets the candidate $70.
“It incentivizes elected officials to reach out to small donors,” Palmer said. “It enables them to care less about big donors, because they can hold a fundraiser with a group of folks like this and the contribution you gave at $25 is now worth $150, and that means it’s easier to talk with average people and not have to go to fundraisers and deal with people that maybe are less fun than constituents.”
Palmer praised the two elected officials on the panel for speaking out in favor of the reform.
“Government reforms in general are very difficult to pass, and that’s why we have two brave elected officials here,” he said. “Everyone who’s in office right now was elected under a particular system without public financing, so you’re asking people who got into power under a particular system to change that whole system, which is a scary thing to do if you want to stay in office.”
Both Jaffee and Carlucci said trying to raise funds takes time away from doing what they were actually elected to do.
“The year prior to the election if becomes something that consumes you, and little by little as the year goes by, I have to set aside, somewhat, the policy focus and start focusing on attempting to raise funds,” Jaffee said. “It is very distracting.”
Carlucci said the matching funds would be a move in the right direction, but it won’t solve all the problems with elections.
“This issue that we’re talking about, unfortunately, it doesn’t limit the big money,” he said. “Some of the big problems that we have are these independent expenditures, that my real concern is that will still be there. What this is really doing is lifting up a voice, a voice of people who don’t have those deep pockets, but can now be more influential in the process.”
And that’s a point that was hammered home by all panelists on Saturday.
“It’s kind of impossible to get money out of politics,” Palmer said. “What we want to do is lessen the influence of big money and increase the influence of average donors, and increase the power that average donors have by matching average small donations with public dollars.”
Lerner talked about what they’ve seen in New York City since the matching system went into place. One example Lerner mentioned was what happened when the maximum donation that would be matched went from $250 down to $175.
“What we saw was that the number of $250 contributions dropped precipitously and the number of $175 contributions increased tremendously, which told us two things,” she said. “Number one, it told us that the candidates were seeking $175 checks and it told us that the voters were responding to the system, that they were actually paying attention and they were contributing in a way that maximized the matching dollars.”
She also shared date from a 2010 state assembly race with no public funding and a 2009 New York City Council election with public funding in the same exact neighborhoods. She said they expected the city council campaigns to draw in maybe three or four times more donors, partially because city council members have a closer connection to their constituents. What they found was 24 times more individuals donated to the city council candidates.
“This is the impact of having a matching fund system,” Lerner said. “It changes the campaign culture, it makes it worthwhile to spend much more time with constituents, having small-dollar ticket fundraisers and allowing candidates to do what these two elected officials have been talking about and what most candidates really want to do, which is spend their time talking to voters.”
Palmer said he thinks there are the votes for it. Similar legislation has passed in the assembly before, and he believes the votes are also in the state senate. In his most recent State of the State, Gov. Andrew Cuomo also said he was in favor of it. Laymon cited a recent poll from Lake Research, which had 79 percent of New Yorkers across party lines in favor of a “comprehensive set of reforms including public matching funds, lower contribution limits and disclosure, to help address the state’s lax campaign finance laws,” according to Public Campaign.
Cuomo didn’t set aside any funding in next year’s budget for the program, and Palmer said Cuomo thinks some of the funding could come from taxpayer dollars, but would prefer alternative revenues. Palmer said the Center for Working Families will release a list of items that could bring in $150 to 175 million in alternative revenues. He also said experts think the program would cost somewhere between $25 to 40 million.
Both Jaffee and Carlucci talked about various issues that come up in the current system. Jaffee said companies that donate large amounts do have influence on decisions, including insurance companies. She said there are also corporate loopholes that don’t seem to get closed up.
“Many of our larger international corporations do not pay the kind of taxes to New York that our small businesses do, and somehow that never gets done,” she said. “We may have legislation and it never actually passes, and that’s clearly the issue of financing and pressure and influence.”
Carlucci said it also works the other way, where if an issue doesn’t have big money behind it it can be hard to pass legislation on it.