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Amy Traub

Cutting the Campaign Cash: New York’s Best Chance for Reform

Cutting public pensions won’t improve the lives of ordinary New Yorkers. Giving tax breaks to the state’s highest income residents won’t benefit most of us either. But at least one reform promoted by Governor Andrew Cuomo has the potential to truly transform New York’s politics, putting people, rather than corporate interests, in control of the political process. Publicly-funded, voter-owned elections represent our best chance to genuinely clean up Albany and assert democratic values in the face of special interests. And while shifting the balance of power is always an uphill fight, the governor’s support combined with strong voter approval for public financing of elections make this the year that New York may finally take back its political system.

That’s why, on the one-year anniversary of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allowed corporate interests to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections, a coalition spearheaded by the grassroots group Citizen Action joined members of the State Assembly in calling for publicly-financed elections in New York.

At first glance, campaign finance reform looks like a good government issue remote from the day-to-day concerns of New Yorkers facing tough times. But at a time when the top 1 percent of New Yorkers rake in 35 percent of the income and Wall Street bankers making bigger bonuses insist they’re still “not satisfied” with their payouts, reasserting ordinary citizens’ control over politicians and the policy they make is more important than ever. Whether it’s rent that’s too damn high, drilling that threatens our drinking water, or transit riders forced to pay more for less service, we need the voices of voters, not big money, calling the shots.

Special interest campaign contributors exercise outsize influence in a number of ways. Deep-pocketed donors lavishly finance candidates friendly to their positions, influencing policy by impacting who gets elected and becomes a policymaker. Meanwhile, elected officials must take substantial time away from their public responsibilities to focus on fundraising. In some cases campaign contributors corrupt the policy process altogether, leading lawmakers to weigh the interests of large donors more heavily than the well-being of ordinary constituents.

New York’s loose campaign finance laws are ultimately costly to taxpayers, as the public ends up paying for special favors, uncompetitive contracts, and other policies tailored to benefit campaign donors rather than the public. Even in cases where outright corruption is absent, the majority of citizens who lack the means to make large campaign contributions are shut out of a critical part of the political process.

A voluntary system of publicly financed elections shuts off the big money spigot by allowing candidates to run for office by collecting many small donations and receiving public funds to run their campaign. It’s working in states from Connecticut to New Mexico. And shifting the balance away from powerful donors and back toward ordinary New Yorkers is one reform that could really change New York for the better.

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Posted at 10:10 AM, Jan 26, 2011 in Democracy | Governmental Reform | New York
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