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Opinion: Public financing would help NY

Photo Credit: TMS illustration by Matt Wuerker

Mark Ladov is a counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Lawrence Norden is deputy director of the Democracy Program at the center.

Government corruption keeps making headlines. Just last week, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was convicted on corruption charges, and reports indicate Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) funneled a billion-dollar project to major campaign contributors.

Such news makes the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision striking down part of Arizona's public financing law particularly troubling. As Justice Elana Kagan explained eloquently in dissent, Arizona voters enacted the law to fight corruption and waste, and to ensure more political competition and speech.

Fortunately for New Yorkers, the Empire State still has plenty of weapons to fight corruption in government. The just-passed landmark ethics bill was a first step. But to get rid of the worst abuses in Albany, we also need comprehensive campaign finance reform, including public financing.

The Supreme Court has made clear that New York cannot adopt the same system as Arizona. But we can pass what is known as a voluntary "small donor public financing system," where participating candidates get public funds to match privately collected donations. New York City implemented such a program after a citywide bribery scandal and the suicide of former Queens Borough President Donald Manes in the mid-1980s. The city has been at the forefront of public financing ever since.

New York City's most notable innovation is its use of multiple matching funds to encourage small-donor outreach.

Under current rules, the city gives participating candidates a $6-to-$1 match in public financing for the first $175 raised from New York City voters. That means a $175 donation to a city council candidate is worth as much as a $1,225 contribution from a special-interest lobbyist. This encourages candidates to seek help from average citizens -- and allows candidates with grassroots support to run viable campaigns, even without the backing of big money.

This pioneering experiment has been a resounding success. The program has enjoyed robust participation by serious, credible candidates. It has promoted voter choice by increasing diversity and competition in city elections. It has dramatically expanded the number of New Yorkers who contribute to campaigns as small donors -- between 1997 (the last election under the one-to-one match) and 2009 (the first election under the six-to-one match) the number of small donors grew by 40 percent. And it is a powerful weapon against the corrupting influence of special interest money; research suggests that large donors, unions and political action committees exert less influence on publicly financed candidates who depend heavily on small donors.

New York City's model remains fully constitutional, even after last week's Supreme Court ruling. The narrow issue before the court was the constitutionality of Arizona's "triggered funds," awarded to a candidate who faced high-spending opposition. By contrast, New York City's small-donor incentives provide public funding based on a candidate's own fundraising. This avoids the constitutional problems raised in the Arizona case by ensuring a candidate's public financing rises or falls based on his or her own success at campaigning.

Now's the time to expand public financing statewide. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's ethics package establishes for the first time that financial disclosure, independent oversight and reform are possible in Albany. But cleaning up Albany requires a comprehensive campaign finance reform program -- including public financing.

Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli made the first move by proposing public financing for state comptroller races. Passed by the Assembly in June, this proposal offers a critical reform that could help prevent another influence-peddling scandal like the one that landed former Comptroller Alan Hevesi in prison. But the legislation never came to a vote in the State Senate.

Just as public financing put a major dent in scandal in New York City, it can help us clean up Albany next. New Yorkers should urge Cuomo and the Senate to make it a priority next year. Public financing will help us create a model for reform that the rest of the nation can follow.