Campaign finance laws: Money still talks

For decades it was a mainstream political position For decades it was a mainstream political position in both major parties to push, or at least accept, public campaign financing as a way to "even the playing field" for candidates and to reduce the clout of big-spending special interests. Photo Credit: istock

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New ...

For decades it was a mainstream political position in both major parties to push, or at least accept, public campaign financing as a way to "even the playing field" for candidates and to reduce the clout of big-spending special interests.

But that idea took a beating in recent years as the effectiveness and legal soundness of public-financing laws were questioned and tested.

Running for president in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama said he would forgo the federal public-financing system for his campaign -- a tactical decision that would give him a spending advantage.

Obama became the first major-party presidential candidate since 1976 to do this, and thus freed himself of the spending limits involved. Sen. John McCain, his opponent, a longtime promoter of public financing, continued to accept its strictures.

In New York City -- with its exceptionally rigorous system of campaign-funding regulation -- billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg also opted out to his own advantage. He poured hundreds of millions of his own dollars into three winning campaigns over eight years -- each time generating a tsunami of ads, robo-calls, commercials and mailings.

Now, plaintiffs -- including longtime Conservative Party activist and ex-City Councilman Tom Ognibene of Queens -- are pushing efforts to get some of the city's public-finance rules struck down in federal court. This latest case brings into play the landmark 2010 Citizens United case -- in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment barred election officials from curbing "independent" expenditures by corporations, labor unions and other such organizations.

Even before the decision spawned massive, newly legal super PACs, campaign-finance regulations were limited by free-speech considerations, thus rendering the best-funded candidates' participation voluntary.

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Supporters of the city's law are playing defense. "Our campaign finance system," Dick Dadey of the Citizens Union said Tuesday, "is still seen as a model, and it has held up under legal scrutiny."

So far, that is. This week, in announcing an amicus brief filed in the Ognibene case by good-government groups, Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause, warned: "We should be fighting to replicate, not dismantle it."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo agrees. He called for a revamped statewide campaign-finance system, along the same lines as the city's, in his annual legislative address in January. But no legislative action followed, once the Senate's GOP majority expressed opposition.

At least one public financing effort proved a dud.

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Suffolk's Public Financing of Campaigns Law was established by a two-thirds public vote in November 1998. By 2002, a five-member board had crafted rules for eligibility, funding and spending limits. But ultimately, no candidate received any money, the board was defunded and the law repealed in December 2009 -- its only legacy an electronic filing system that the county election board took over.

One way or another, money will find a way to keep talking in elections, the only questions being how much and how loudly.

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