Taking a fresh look at campaign finance

Campaign finance

Campaign finance

Dan Janison

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

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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It is easy to be skeptical about the work product of elected officials who spend much of their time raising funds -- and about the effects on government of big-money donations.

It is also easy to be skeptical about suggestions that public campaign financing will stem corruption, improve governance and boost citizen participation.

Perennial debate over whether New York State would, should or could introduce a public campaign financing system such as New York City's goes on as before. But this time, it occurs in the shadow of a sky's-the-limit presidential race destined to shatter all-time spending and fundraising records.

On Wednesday, the state Democratic Committee, along with two nonprofits -- the Third Way organization and the Center for American Progress Action Fund -- sponsored a policy conference in which a panel of speakers discussed and clashed over the issue.

Campaign finance "has been a very difficult area for many, many years," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in kicking off the Manhattan conference. He said, "It is important because it is all about the people's ability to trust their government."

Views expressed by panelists who otherwise differed overlapped in at least one respect. They seemed to concur that New York's various contribution limits for party and candidate fundraising committees could be lower.

Sean Eldridge, an advocate of changing the laws and founder of the nonprofit political advocacy group Protect Our Democracy, pointed to the state's exceptionally high legal ceilings for political donations. He talked about hugely expensive fundraising dinners as an emblem of the problem.

"Our elected officials are spending more time than we'd like not talking about policy, not thinking about issues, but dialing for dollars," Eldridge said. "Albany shouldn't be a call center."

Karen Scharff of the political advocacy group Citizen Action agreed.

Robert Bellafiore, founder and president of Stanhope Partners, an Albany-area communications consulting firm, said the people who feel compelled to send campaign checks would like nothing more than to be able to say, "Oh, $2,000 is the most I can write? Great. Thank you."

Also, he said, longtime incumbents who have raised funds for years under higher limits could very well appreciate the prospect of "all their future opponents having to live under the smaller limits."

Opinion was more divided when it came to the public providing matching funds for smaller contributions as a way of retooling the whole approach to fundraising.

Political science professor Michael Malbin of the University at Albany, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, cited his group's research in conjunction with the Brennan Center for Justice that showed changes brought by New York City's financing law.

City Council candidates, affected by the law, collected significantly more money from small-amount donors, better spread throughout their districts, than state Assembly candidates not subject to the law, for example.

But David Primo, associate professor of political science and business at the University of Rochester, cited a difference between the hopes and effects of public-financing laws. It is not clear, he said, that the city's law has reduced corruption, and voter turnout has fallen off.

Since the status quo is always a good bet, it sounded from the conversation as if the financial floodgates in big political races will stay open, more jurisdictions may try public financing, and the endless debate will go on.