Gov. Cuomo calling for public campaign financing

Jan 9, 2012

Governor Cuomo, in his state of the state message, called for public financing of campaigns, based on a model currently in use in New York City. Proponents, including those who have studied the model as well as public finance systems in other states, believe it can work.

Cuomo would like to model the state’s system on the  New York City campaign finance system, which offers candidates matching funds, once they have solicited small contributions from individual donors.

Michael Malbin directs The Campaign Finance Institute, a Washington based non partisan research center with the goal of increasing public participation in elections. Malbin’s research was cited by Cuomo in his State of the State message.

Malbin says the program is not a government hand out.  Political candidates have to do the leg work first.

“We don’t see this as welfare for politicians, which is the way it’s often characterized by opponents,” said Malbin. “It’s not just a handout. The candidate has to work to persuade somebody to give.”

The Campaign Finance Institute found in New York City, the system multiplied the number of donors, and  expanded diversity beyond the traditional white, upper middle class and wealthy who normally give money.

Malbin believes the same system could significantly change New York’s legislative races. The Campaign Finance Institute studied political donors in all 50 states, and found New York State was dead last in terms of the number of donors, less than half of one percent of the state’s population gave any money to any candidate.   

“It could be transformative,” Malbin said.

The Campaign Finance Institute estimates the state would need to spend $140 million dollars over a four year election cycle.  Karen Scharff, with the government reform group Citizen Action, says that’s not a lot of money in a $130 billion dollar state budget. And she believes it saves money when you take into account what she says is the indirect costs to taxpayers from the present big money donor system. She says it’s the difference between running with “small donations” from people in the candidate’s district,  and  “large donations from corporate interests who are not from your district and don’t care about your district”.

“It completely changes who can run and who can win,” said Scharff.  

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire, opted out of the public campaign financing system in his election campaigns, and spent his own money instead.  Malbin, with the Campaign Finance Institute, says constitutionally, no one can stop a candidate from opting out, and admits that’s more likely to happen for a statewide office like governor or US Senate post, where candidates perceive that massive amounts of money can give them an advantage. But he says it at least helps level the playing field for an opponent.

“Without the matching funds, the person who runs against a self-financed candidate would be dead in the water,” said Malbin.

Scharff says Citizen Action and other groups will begin talking to lawmakers to persuade them to sign on the Cuomo’s plan. She says Democrats in the State Assembly have already proposed a similar idea. Senate Republicans so far have not.  She says Cuomo’s influence will be key.

“He’s shown that he’s a governor who can get things done,” said Scharff. “When he makes something a priority it becomes a focus of activity in Albany.”

Scharff says she believes the timing is also right, the Occupy Wall Street movement has focused the debate on the influence of large corporations in society, and she says there’s also been a lot of attention drawn to recent Supreme court decisions, like Citizens United, which ruled, essentially, that when it comes to campaign contributions, corporations are people, too.