A lot of column inches in Albany blogs and daily newspapers have been expended in the last few months, taking the daily temperature of the recently formed Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. Based on its name alone, the commission has a worthy purpose — there is no question that Albany has stewed in a culture of corruption for way too long. There are good reasons for the profound distrust of state government on the part of the public: Too many decisions made by too few people (going from three to four men in a room does not represent progress) and inadequate openness, transparency and accountability, among them. But I would argue the most insidious is the dominance of money in the halls of power.
As a newcomer to Albany, and as an Assembly member who had to run two campaigns in eight months — once in March 2012 in a special election to fill a vacancy and then in the November 2012 general election for a full two-year term — it’s already pretty clear to me that the only way to start changing the culture in Albany is to start addressing what the Brennan Center for Justice calls the “corrosive nature of money” in state politics, through meaningful and comprehensive campaign reform.
If we are looking to restore public trust in state government the real conversation needs to be not just about current state legislators refusing to share the names of their clients but rather how do we change an entrenched — but legal — system that has legislators forced to raise money to run every two years while pretty much putting all the cards in the hands of a small number of well-funded special interests. Even those who claim term limits are the solution to Albany’s dysfunction miss the point that those well-funded special interests will still remain, armed with institutional memory and ready to engage the next crop of freshman legislators.
The public should know if the outside income of legislators and other state elected officials comes from those doing business with New York state. But the public should also know the significant amounts of money that can legally be contributed to the election or re-election campaigns of candidates running for state office in New York: Assembly candidates can accept contribution of $4,100 each for a primary, if they have one, as well as the general election (for a total if $8,200) and Senate candidates can accept $6,500 for a primary and $10,500 for the general (for a total of $17,000). For the statewide offices — governor/lieutenant governor, attorney general or comptroller — one individual can donate up to $60,800 if there is a primary and general election.
Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court, in one of the most wrong-minded decisions in its history, opened the floodgates on superPACs, which creates yet another source of campaign money and keeps that political spending from public view. We, in the Hudson Valley, will likely see that play out big time next year as we experience what are predicted to be two of the most expensive congressional races in the country.
Indeed, the only way to truly restore public trust in state government is to enact meaningful comprehensive campaign reform. New York could actually be a leader in campaign reform if we are willing to be bold and start addressing the concerns raised for years by public interest groups like Common Cause, the Brennan Center and others.
Key among these recommendations are a limited public funding program to match small private donations — which has the added benefit of increasing voter engagement; independent, nonpartisan and adequately staffed and funded enforcement of campaign finance laws; reasonable contribution limits with stricter caps for lobbyists and contractors doing business with the state; and improved disclosure of political contributions and expenditures.
Some folks balk at public financing of campaigns, but if they think that taxpayer dollars are not already being expended and public funds grossly wasted in our current pay-to-play system they are fooling themselves.
A culture of corruption doesn’t happen overnight. And change won’t happen overnight, either. But we owe it to the people of New York state — our constituents — to start the process for meaningful reform now.