Don’t hold your breath on campaign finance reform

Should we pay for politicians’ campaigns? Of course we should. As the guy on the TV commercial used to say, “You can pay me now or you can pay me later.” Obviously, politicians spend inordinate amounts of time raising money. Money can buy TV, radio and print ads. If you don’t think that this is how elections are won, think again. This means that a large part of every office holder’s day is involved in picking up the phone and meeting with well-heeled people who want something from government. I have interviewed hundreds of politicians over the years and they tell me that this part of their jobs is the worst thing they do. It is a meat market, pure and simple, and it’s one of the reasons why the one percent is able to run things despite the fact that the other ninety-nine percent may not like what’s going on.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says that he is in favor of campaign finance reform. (Mind you, he also said he would veto the redistricting bill). Some polls have suggested that the people support it, too. They have it in New York City and it has worked well enough so that the composition of the City Council has changed for the better. Hey, if you want real democracy, someone has to pay for it. It’s simple – either the people who want something continue to pay for politicians to run or we allow citizens to raise the barn together.

A new coalition, “New York Leadership for Accountable Government,” which boasts some of the richest people in New York State, has announced a mighty push for legislation that would give the state what the city has. They say that they will spend big bucks getting campaign financing passed. Great idea, but does it have a chance?

Pretend for a moment that you are a state legislator, Democrat or Republican, who got here the old-fashioned way, going hat in hand to people who have money to get their support. You realize, of course, that if the state helps to fund campaigns you are going to have opponents who can now afford to run for the first time. Up until now, the state has had a series of advantages for office holders, sometimes called the” IPP” or “Incumbent Protection Plan. ” Passing public campaign financing would blow a huge hole in the IPP. Of course, there are a lot more Democrats than Republicans in New York state and the Democrats would control the Senate if people could afford to run. Therefore the Republican majority in the New York state Senate will never support this very good idea, the same way they opposed a sensible, non-partisan redistricting plan. They know that if they voted for it they would be cutting their own throats. The Assembly has voted on campaign financing in the past but I am reasonably sure they knew that the Republican Senate would never do so. The true test would come, of course, if and when the state Senate goes Democratic. That’s when the difference between how the Assembly Democrats talk and how they walk would become apparent.

The new wealthy leadership group obviously means well and should be commended. Many of them have been giving money to candidates for years. In the unlikely event that this thing passes, some of them might have to give less, although when you think about it, most of them have so much money that this can hardly be their motivation. Right now individuals can give up to $60,800 for candidates for statewide office. Thanks to the Republican majority on the United States Supreme Court and their poisonous decision called “Citizens United,” the one percent crowd has an even greater advantage. That’s why, more than ever, we need campaign finance reform.

In case you are wondering how it got passed in New York City, the answer is that the people voted for it in public referendum. We have no such thing in New York state although we ought to. As for campaign finance reform, it’s a great idea but human nature being what it is, don’t hold your breath.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 4/16/12

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