Davis: Matching funds are still the best way to fight political corruption

Voters are weary of politicians scooping up supersized Voters are weary of politicians scooping up supersized contributions from special interests and, all too often, using those campaign funds for their personal needs. Photo Credit: iStock

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After watching yet another group of state lawmakers handcuffed and arrested last month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unveiled legislation to make it easier for prosecutors to punish corrupt politicians and the private citizens who participate in their schemes. These are important changes that command broad support. But make no mistake: They do not address the Wild West culture of money in state politics.

Voters are weary of politicians scooping up supersized contributions from special interests and, all too often, using those funds for personal needs -- in some cases, to pay legal bills stemming from corruption charges. But year after year, nothing changes. It's been decades since the last real overhaul of New York's campaign finance laws.

As a former federal prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, I see the same old story playing out: Porous campaign finance laws breed cynicism, so voters tune out and feel disenfranchised. Many people come to Albany to work hard and do the right thing, but sensational scandals that highlight the bad apples tarnish everyone.

How do we fix it? The governor supports a small-donor matching funds program for state elections, modeled on the system that has been in place in New York City for two decades. While the reality is that any system can be abused, as evidenced by the convictions Thursday, this is still the best approach to mitigating the effects of big money on politics. No one change will suddenly end corruption, clearly, but we know we can't have the cultural change we need in Albany unless we reform how we fund elections.

The city's system is administered by a tough-but-fair professional staff and overseen by the nonpartisan, independent Campaign Finance Board. As a member of that board for the past four years, I'm convinced that a small-donor matching program for state elections remains the most powerful reform tool available. In the city, small-dollar contributions up to $175 are matched with public funds at a rate of 6 to 1. The system ensures that incumbents don't get a free ride: Those who run without real opposition cannot receive the full public match.

The match provides candidates with an incentive to spend more time campaigning among their constituents, instead of soliciting large contributions from wealthy special-interest donors. A report last year by the Campaign Finance Institute and the Brennan Center for Justice found small donors in City Council races in every neighborhood, across the five boroughs.

At the state level, however, New York's sky-high contribution limits and myriad loopholes provide a different set of incentives: State legislators can much more easily fundraise outside their home districts from a reliable stream of donors in Albany and Manhattan, including lobbyists, trade associations, unions, contractors and corporations doing business with the state. The current system often makes lawmakers less accountable to their constituents -- and more accountable to special interests -- with potentially devastating effect. A report last year by the Center for Working Families looking into the campaign of former State Senator Pedro Espada Jr., who faced both federal and state corruption investigations, found that only three of the 575 donors to his last campaigns were from his district.

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Some argue that the recent scandals should give us pause. Why give these same politicians public money for their campaigns when they've proven unworthy of our trust? In Albany, those politicians are free to collect supersized checks from every sort of special interest. They can spend those funds however they like; the State Board of Elections has neither the power nor the resources to hold them to account. If we pair a small-donor public matching funds system with a strong, independent enforcement arm, someone will finally be watching the store in Albany.

Cuomo and the legislature have demonstrated that they can reach agreement on important legislative initiatives that most observers thought weren't possible. Now, they've promised comprehensive reforms to New York's campaign finance laws. We have a rare window to enact real reform. Let's not squander this opportunity.

Richard J. Davis, a former assistant U.S. Attorney who worked in the Watergate special prosecutor's office, is a member of the New York City Campaign Finance Board and the bipartisan advocacy group New York Leadership for Accountable Government.

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