New York has approved the public financing of political campaigns for state offices — sort of.
The State Legislature punted the issue to a commission as part of the 2019-20 state budget, along with $100 million, instructing said body to figure it all out. That roughly translates, in 2019 language, to the commission doing whatever Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants.
“Reformers” are rejoicing, and one can’t help empathizing with the honest souls among them. Political donations intoxicate morally unsound elected officials who decide how our lives are restricted. Things have not gone well in that regard even when prosecutors can’t prove it. (An Albany adage: Never write what you can say; never say what you can wink.)
But you’d be naive to think that campaign finance, the colloquialism used for taxpayer-funded political campaigns, will get corruption out of New York politics. That will remain as sure as sin, and campaign air wars will likely get nastier. In the process, hundreds of millions of state tax dollars will get flushed down the ladies and gents.
We’ll start there: Thanks to the miracle of gerrymandering and a consequence of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act, just a handful of political races are actually competitive in New York. Many of our state legislators are re-elected by big margins, if they have opposition at all. But throw in “free” money, and they’ll organize funded re-election teams, with gleaming new state-of-the-art office hardware. How do we know that? It’s exactly what happened when New York City passed public financing in 1993. Winners here: Apple, Microsoft and all the new political consultants about to incorporate, and those already operating.
Those who think big money will vanish from New York political campaigns are similarly mistaken. Money won’t go anywhere; it will simply shift to different entities.
In Buckley v. Valeo, the U.S. Supreme Court correctly ruled in 1976 that restricting an individual’s right to spend on political speech would violate his or her First Amendment right to free speech. Indeed, in the post-Gutenberg world, money equals speech. Thomas Paine couldn’t have published “Common Sense” without it.
So when campaigns are prohibited from accepting anything other than small donations, big-donor money naturally goes elsewhere. Under tax laws, that means independent expenditure campaigns — 527s or 501c4s groups, which questionably allow anonymous donations. These campaigns are run independently of candidate campaigns, so they’re free to go as far down into the mud as they see fit. Candidates cannot influence what independent expenditure campaigns, do or say, so they have plausible deniability when the gloves really come off.
When you hear candidates say, “I can’t make those ads stop,” they’re telling the truth. What candidates are permitted to do, though, is steer donors to the independent expenditure campaigns, demonstrating the Albany wink rule. Under this scenario, candidates know exactly who is giving to them; they know the independent expenditure campaigns will do the necessary dirty work, and they can feign innocence when the ads appear on TV. All in all, a pretty neat trick.
Union money will keep flowing in the form of “independent” phone banks, emails, literature drops, etc. Public financing doesn’t touch that. Winners there: legislators who vote the public employee union line.
It’s exasperating to see good government hijacked by moneyed interests. But public financing isn’t going to fix that. It will only drive the financial influence of elected officials deeper underground.
New York would have been better off removing restraints from campaign donations and strictly requiring that every donor dollar be made public. We’d at least know who the buyers are, and could fight back without our arms tied behind our backs.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.