The latest fundraising figures are out for state and local politicians in New York, and they contain the same message as usual: We need campaign finance reform.
In the first half of the year, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano took in nearly $1.1 million, including thousands from companies that do business with the county. Nassau's district attorney, Kathleen Rice, took in more than $1 million, conjuring the unseemly image of enthusiastic fundraising by the county's top cop.
And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who argued during his gubernatorial race that New York needs campaign finance reform, outdid the others by raising $5.8 million in the first half. That brought the popular governor's campaign war chest to $19.3 million.
But don't blame the politicians for doing what the system makes unavoidable: raising scads of money, often in large donations. According to the nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group, at least 102 donors have given the governor $40,000 or more apiece since January 2011.
The problem is that New York has some of loosest donation limits in the country -- $41,100 per donor for a statewide general election -- which is one reason politics here has been beholden to special interests for so long.
In county and local elections, the donor limits are based on a formula -- 5 cents per active registered voter. This results in ceilings so high that individuals can give a lot. In the general election for Nassau County executive, for instance, each individual donor can give a maximum of $45,453, which exceeds the $41,100 an individual can give in the gubernatorial general election. A determined donor can give even more through businesses and family members. It's high time Albany changed that.
Let's be clear: lower donation limits and public matching funds are far from a panacea. Money will always have a role in politics, and there is no way to stop a fabulously wealthy candidate from outspending all parties by opening his or her own wallet.
But properly designed reforms can reduce the role of big donors and magnify the role of little ones. New York's current limit of $60,800 for a statewide primary and general election is more than 12 times the national median. We need lower limits on individual donations and faster disclosure of who's giving what, so citizens needn't wait as much as six months to find out. Reforms should also include matching funds for candidates who choose to participate.
The governor has already endorsed the public financing system in place in New York City, where candidates who agree to live by limits on spending can get $6 in public funds for every dollar donated by city residents. But only the first $175 of each donor's giving is matched. Among the system's limitations, however, is that it favors incumbents and still doesn't rein in corruption.
Cuomo has a chance to add to his list of accomplishments by driving reform on campaign finance. Meanwhile, politicians can burnish their images and avoid the appearance of impropriety by simply refusing donations from those who do business with government.