For Public Financing Reform, All Eyes on New York State

Constitutionally sound public financing legislation in New York State has deep national implications: it could begin to push back againstand all the recent losses borne by campaign finance reform around the country.
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According to Jessica Wisneski, Legislative and Campaign Director of Citizen Action of New York, New York State is in an ideal position to enact legislation for the public financing of statewide elections. And, given the crippling blow dealt to national campaign finance reform by Citizens United v. FEC, New York's precedent has the potential be a game-changer on a national scale.

Wisneski was part of a panel discussion held on Wednesday on the future of public financing in the wake of Citizens United; the panel was held at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture in Park Slope and was sponsored by Citizen Action NY and New Kings Democrats. The panel's other members were Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, and Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an attorney at NYU Law School's Brennan Center for Justice. The panel was effectively a field meeting for a few of New York's major progressive political advocacy organizations to discuss the feasibility of state-level public finance reform. (Save for the Brennan Center, which is more research-oriented, all the groups involved are boots-on-the-ground grassroots organizations.) The tone of the meeting, though cautious and acutely aware of the legal and political obstacles facing any movement for voter-owned elections, was hopeful and energized.

All three participants stressed that public financing ought to be the top progressive priority in the state -- Lerner described it as "the reform that makes all other reforms possible." By freeing statewide elections from corporate interests and putting them in the hands of ordinary voters, the thinking goes, lawmakers will be capable of making independent policy decisions on every other major issue facing the state, from redistricting to hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale to the budget crisis. The latter issue is particularly salient, because of its potential to be invoked as an obstacle to public financing in itself: how does a state finance elections in a budget crisis? The answer is a chicken-or-the-egg two-step: voter-owned elections will allow for the kind of honest discussions on budget solutions that are currently made impossible by legislators' ties to corporations and wealthy individuals -- namely, new taxes on said corporations and wealthy individuals.

Wisneski described the rare potential of the current situation in state government: Andrew Cuomo reiterated his commitment to public financing in his State of the State address in January (having originally done so as a gubernatorial primary candidate in 2002); the Assembly has already passed several public financing bills and can probably be relied on to do so again; and the Senate, though Republican-controlled, got that way by promising aggressive reform. In this triad, the Senate is clearly the linchpin (as one of the panel's attendees called it) -- whereas Cuomo and Sheldon Silver's Assembly are fairly reliable allies, winning the Senate will require some Republican arm-twisting. But Wisneski is confident that this can happen, specifically mentioning Senators Kenneth Lavalle (Long Island) and John Bonacic (Hudson Valley) as possible targets. Cuomo's sway over the legislature is also crucial in this arrangement: despite the Assembly's past willingness to enact one-house public financing bills, sitting legislators tend to resist measures that empower their opponents, and a bill that has actual potential for success could scare incumbents. This is no small matter in New York: Torres-Spelliscy unleashed the Brennan Center's stunning statistic that a New York State legislator is more likely to die or go to prison while in office than to lose a general election.

Under Cuomo, public financing in New York State is likely to resemble the fund-matching system already in place in New York City, in which the government provides a candidate with additional money for every dollar raised in small donations. As Torres-Spelliscy explained, this incentivizes candidates to seek contributions from as many ordinary people as possible with small amounts to spare, rather than focusing on a handful of wealthy donors who can fill the campaign coffers with only a few checks. It also opens up the ballot to candidates who can boast ties to their communities but not to executive board rooms.

The alternative is the Clean Elections system, in which candidates receive a lump sum of public funds once they reach a certain level of small contributions; the candidates then promise not to obtain any additional donations. Variations of this system have been enacted in Maine, Connecticut, Vermont and Arizona (where it helped win Janet Napolitano the governorship in 2002), but have encountered legal trouble over the years. Most significantly, on March 28th, the Brennan Center will begin to defend parts of Arizona's Clean Elections law before the Supreme Court in McComish v. Bennett. Given the Roberts Court's manifest willingness to broadly overturn precedent in weakening campaign finance laws, an unfavorable outcome in McComish could have dire consequences for the national future of public financing.

For Wednesday night's panelists, this is precisely why successful, constitutionally sound public financing legislation in New York State has deep national implications: it could begin to push back against Citizens United and all the recent losses borne by campaign finance reform around the country.

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