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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

NY campaign finance plan will make matters worse

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 A simple, unsolicited solution for reducing big money in New York political campaigns: make donors give to a race rather than a candidate, then divide that pot of money equally among the qualifying contestants.

If a donor really believes in Candidate X — and is truly confident in his ideas — the donor should have no fear of what Candidate Y has to say. Let the donor unleash an unlimited bankroll to promulgate X’s intellectual largesse across the airwaves; Y’s inferior reasoning would naturally falter in the full-throated competition of ideas that would ensue. But if said donor fears what Y has to say — if the donor wants Y to be heard as little as possible — he’ll logically limit his donation to the race. In this, campaign spending would be self-policing. Indeed, incumbent candidates might end up begging big-money donors to reduce the amounts they give.

There would be problems with such a system — would it be constitutional for example? (Arguable.) But it would be a heck of a lot simpler and more effective than the convoluted matching fund program the State Public Campaign Finance Commission approved on Monday. It also wouldn’t cost the public a dime. (Disclosure: a client is challenging the commission’s legal authority in court.)

You practically need a math degree to follow the planned formula the commission just laid out. The formula would vary donation caps based on offices sought, a three-tiered public matching fund ratio, socio-economic census data — the median income for every district would be calculated to determine matching formulas for races therein — and more. All this would be organized and executed by — wait for it — the New York State Board of Elections.

Let’s not even go there.

The proposed campaign finance program would cost taxpayers $100 million every four years. This in a state already facing a $6 billion to $8 billion deficit. The cost of the program would be even higher, but the commission, appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislative leaders and effectively led by the Chairman of the New York State Democratic Party, devised a politically convenient cost-saving measure: reduce the number of candidates in a race by putting smaller political parties out of business. This would be achieved by dramatically raising the number of votes parties need to win in gubernatorial elections every four years to maintain ballot status.

Clever — right?

But this matching-fund program (or mine, frankly) would do nothing to stop big-money donors from “investing” in candidates. It would instead hasten the shift of large special interest donations from heavily regulated candidate committees to less regulated independent expenditure committees; it would drive that money deeper underground, as has been occurring with every new campaign finance law added. 

In the case of 501 (c4) committees, for example, donors can give unlimited amounts of money anonymously in some cases, but you can be darned sure candidates they support, expressly or implicitly, know who’s given. Government strictures, in other words, have served to make a bad situation worse.

Something else happens, too, when dollars shift from candidate committees to independent expenditure committees: political races often get nastier and less truthful. Candidates and consultants know they pay a price for ugly or fallacious attacks on opponents. Independent expenditure campaigns, on the other hand, have virtually free rein to do or say anything to take down an opponent. Candidates they support can legitimately claim innocence, moreover, as message coordination between candidates and independent expenditure committees is strictly prohibited.

The expensive public campaign finance program put forth on Monday might make some New Yorkers feel better. But it’s not going to stop corruptible politicians from doing the bidding of their biggest political donors. It’s only going to make that influence less transparent.

The bottom line is that we need better human beings in office. Limiting the amount of money candidates can spend — limiting their ability to educate voters  — only makes that harder to achieve at the end of the day. The more debate the healthier the system.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.