As advocates for the environment and environmental justice, we see many causes for concern these days, from the quickening pace of global warming to the frenzied pursuit of fracking. But the greatest threat to our environment here in New York may be an unlikely suspect: big money.
Wealthy industry contributors have stalled and derailed sound environmental legislation for decades, but reining in the influence of big money has never been more urgent. Our state's growing energy needs mean that these logjams can take a bigger and bigger toll on New York's environment and public health.
So we're glad that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has called for public financing of state elections -- with contribution limits and strong enforcement -- to take the power back from a few big-money contributors. Good government advocates, community groups and even business leaders like Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, have stepped forward in support during this legislative session. For the first time, reform may be within reach -- but only if the State Legislature acts.
Consider that gas companies and their trade associations donated a whopping $1.34 million to New York State elected officials and campaign committees from January 2007 through October 2011. This is no surprise, since certain regions of the state are being considered for natural-gas extraction through a process called hydraulic-fracturing. The state greatly needs a fracking health-impact study, to evaluate how this process -- which has been linked to contamination of groundwater and harmful pollutants -- affects human health. But the study didn't make it into this year's budget.
Sometimes, by sheer organizing power, we can best the influence of big money. New York's Bigger Better Bottle Law, which finally passed in 2009 over the opposition of beverage industry giants, is one example. The law expanded the state's successful 5-cent deposit law to include bottled water, and it forced the beverage industry to turn over unclaimed deposits to the state. But it took years of grassroots organizing to overcome these roadblocks. No sensible policy should be that hard to implement.
Public financing would help solve these problems by amplifying the impact of small donations and allowing candidates to build viable campaigns without succumbing to the temptations of large donations -- like those offered by the gas and beverage industries.
That's what's begun to happen in New York City: Participating candidates are relying more heavily on financing from small donors, thanks to a six-to-one match on donations of $175 or less. As a result, we're seeing greater and more diverse participation, with more donors and candidates from low- and moderate-income backgrounds.
So what would a state public financing system cost? Using New York City's system as a model, nonpartisan experts from the Campaign Finance Institute estimate the price at $25 million to $30 million a year for a four-year cycle. That's $2.50 per a New Yorker per year.
The alternative? We fear it will be contaminated air and drinking water, and a growing reliance on dirty energy sources -- not to mention a government that caters more to industry lobbyists than the public.
Legislation was proposed in both the Assembly and Senate this session, which is scheduled to end next week. Our elected officials need to move these bills forward for the governor's signature. The environmental and environmental justice community is ready to fight alongside him to ensure reform comes to New York. We want to see change now, but we're in it for the long haul, and we won't give up until our other elected leaders follow.