The Public Should Pay for Elections So Politicians Can't Be Bought

Until election campaigns in New York State are publicly funded, getting rid of bad-apple politicians won't do much. The whole tree is rotten. It's Albany's money culture that blurs the line between legal fundraising and give and get-in-return criminal activity. The Legislature must act, but it's time for Governor Cuomo to lead the charge, and actually try to win reform this time.

Yesterday, now-former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was found guilty on corruption charges. Last week, it was now-former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Before them, even in recent history, there's a very long list.

There has been a lot of local and national media attention paid to the money in politics problem - on record spending, as well as stories of lobbyists and elected officials crossing that blurred line into criminal behavior. But insufficient attention has been given to solutions like public financing of elections. As a result, we have a nation full of people outraged about money-dominated politics, but most left feeling nothing can be done about it. That's incredibly unfortunate because lessening the undue influence of big money in politics, and increasing the voices of average people, is the single most important policy change needed in this country. It is the key to meaningfully addressing a host of other critical crises, like extreme wealth concentration and climate change.

How is it that big money influences decisions in the policymaking process, and why would public financing work to lessen that undue influence? I'll explain that, as well as the opportunity for reform in New York, if Governor Cuomo takes meaningful action.

Most people these days understand that money matters a whole lot in politics. It helps candidates win elections and it helps big-moneyed interests win favorable policy outcomes. Corporate entities and leaders with narrow interests and deep pockets regularly give large political donations to win self-serving laws. Average people suffer the consequences -- think big tax breaks that leave less money in the public pot for education, roads and bridges; or drug policies written by the drug industry that result in higher drug prices for you and me. Big moneyed interests also use their money-backed clout to kill good bills that would benefit the public, all in service of protecting their own bottom lines -- think polluters opposing a carbon pollution tax, or big banks opposing financial reform that could prevent another recession.

I've experienced it first hand more locally on the issue campaigns I've worked on: the New York City real estate industry using big money to aggressively oppose a law to adequately address childhood lead paint poisoning; utility companies and power producers opposing laws that would cut energy use, lower consumer energy bills and create jobs; Wall Street lobbyists opposing increased income taxes on the ultra-wealthy while teachers, police and firefighters faced harmful cuts.

It's easy to see how policies are skewed towards the preferences of big donors, given the incentive elected officials have to raise money: to keep their jobs. On every legislative vote, elected officials ask themselves, how will this decision impact my next election? Since money is what's needed to run a competitive campaign for public office, the question is really, how will this vote impact my ability to raise money to win reelection? Whom the elected official thinks of when answering that question is at the heart of the money in politics problem. They think of the big donors.

Writing huge checks to elected officials is allowed through various channels, and so what candidate wouldn't seek the efficiency of one $20,000 contribution over 2,000 ten-dollar contributions? The obvious problem, however, is that the average constituent doesn't write $20,000 checks. Wealthy individuals and special interests do, and often for a lot more than $20,000. Who do you think is going to get more attention from the candidate once she is elected? You see there is no mass conspiracy here. In most cases, lobbyists of all stripes and elected officials are just doing their jobs and playing to win under the rules of the game. It's the rules that are screwy - kept in place by elected officials who benefit from the status quo, and by a U.S. Supreme Court hostile to the notion of political equality.

These campaign finance rules have facilitated a simple and ugly truth about American democracy: the more money one has, the more sway one has in politics, and therefore the more say one has in writing the rules that shape our society. If resources were infinite, it might matter less, but when the big money takers take, it means that there is less money to invest in things that make everyone else more financially secure, better educated and healthier. It's not right. Most people get that. What most people don't seem to believe is that solutions exist. But they do, and public financing of elections is an important one.

To publicly finance elections is to provide candidates who want to run for office with public tax dollars to do so. Access to public funds means candidates can rely less on big, private money. In exchange, candidates must meet a certain threshold level of community support (e.g., X number of small donations from community members), and agree to abide by certain limits, like significantly lower contribution limits.

While the Supreme Court has essentially made it illegal to put meaningful limits on campaign spending (they say money is speech), public financing is voluntary for candidates and solidly constitutional. I'm a fan of efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution to address this matter, but public financing is the single best immediately achievable response to the flood - and undue influence - of big money in politics. (Anyone deserving of a vote in the 2016 Presidential election should also be talking about it at the national level.)

In New York City, which has a well-respected program, candidates running for office can get six public dollars for every one private dollar received as a political contribution from an individual - up to $175. Corporations are banned from giving altogether. A $175 contribution from a constituent would garner a $1,050 public dollar match. That $175 contribution is now worth $1,225, and that small donor just became politically relevant. This increased value of average small donors through public funds is what enables a candidate to shun big private money; she now has a lot of constituents in the district with the potential to actually help get her elected.

It's a game-changer. Suddenly spending time at that house party hosted by a constituent mom who cares about her kids' education, her family's health, and good local jobs, is as valuable to a candidate as that hour spent dialing for dollars outside of the district. Or it's as valuable as the hour spent attending a $1000 per plate special interest fundraiser hosted by people who may not share constituent priorities, or worse, want policies that would adversely impact the average person in the candidate's district.

This isn't just theory. Public financing puts more small donor money in the overall pot while decreasing, relatively, the amount of big money in the system. It has also been shown to increase the number of small donors. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, 61% of all money donated in 2013 to City Council candidates participating in New York City's campaign finance program came from public matching funds and donations under $250. Compare that to New York State, which does not have public financing: in 2012, only 7% of all donations to state legislative candidates came from small donors. Big money dominates in Albany.

Public funding of elections works to lessen that domination. That's why there's opposition to it from those who benefit from the status quo. For these elites, it's not particularly effective to oppose public financing on the grounds that they benefit from big money. Instead they criticize the cost of the program.

Dean Skelos -- the former State Senate Majority Leader convicted of corruption yesterday -- had been publicly opposed to public financing for years. He said it was because of the cost. That argument is a fig leaf. In New York State, a public financing program would cost an estimated $26-$41 million a year. For some context, at the high-end, that's about .03% of the state budget, or the cost of a cup of coffee a year for every New Yorker. It would be well worth the added cost even if a New York State public financing program would not save us boatloads of money. But it would actually save the state money.

As an example, the New York Yankees spread around campaign cash to Bronx Democrats in the mid-2000s when they sought to build a new stadium. At the time, the Yankees were the third highest valued sports team in the world. Still, they were awarded over $660 million in subsidies to build. Had just this one instance of unjustified taxpayer funds going to big donors been avoided, we could fund a public financing program in New York State for up to 25 years! It would pay for itself, and some.

Spending money on democracy is not a novel idea. Would we let billionaires who take sides in an election buy our voting machines? Of course we would not. We use tax dollars to buy voting machines and pay for poll workers to ensure that our elections have integrity. Public financing should not be seen as any different. Someone is going to pay for candidates to run for office. Right now it's the ultra-wealthy and they are getting a handsome return on their investment at the public's expense. The public should pay for elections so that wealthy private interests can't buy our politicians.

If publicly funded elections would lessen the influence of big money and reduce wasteful spending, why hasn't it happened? Well, imagine trying to pass a law to reduce the sugar intake of 5 year olds, and the politicians who must vote to pass it are all sugar-addicted 5 year-olds. Try reasoning with them to pass the bill because it will be good for their teeth. Such is the battle reformers undertake in the effort to reduce the undue influence of big money in politics. Hardly a decision-maker is responsive to the arguments of reformers because all they hear is that someone is going to take away their sugar.

But alas, scandals are opportunities. Corruption scandals led both New York City and Connecticut to adopt publicly funded elections programs. In 1986, a federal investigation into extortion and bribery led several New York City officials to plead guilty, while some were later convicted. The events pressured sitting incumbents, like then-Mayor Ed Koch and the New York City Council to pass New York City's public campaign finance program. In Connecticut, it was Governor Rowland's 2004 guilty plea to corruption charges that led to the passage of Connecticut's law in 2005. In New York, two of the most powerful political leaders have just been convicted of corruption, and this happened on the watch of the third: Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is also now facing questions about providing lucrative deals to big Wall Street banks that showered him with campaign donations.

From first hand experience -- as a past member of the Fair Elections for New York Coalition, with which I served as campaign manager for several phases -- it's been hard to take the Governor's commitment to public financing of elections seriously. Public financing of elections was supposedly a top priority for this powerful governor. Winning could never be considered a slam-dunk, yet not a single elected official I'd spoken to during the campaign doubted his ability to deliver victory if he actually wanted it. Yet the proposed legislation went nowhere year after year.

Cuomo came to Albany in 2010 claiming he'd clean it up, and public financing has been on his reform agenda since then. Yet he's rarely spoken out forcefully on the issue; he's consistently refused to use his electoral prowess or the legislative tools available to him to advance it; and most recently, he pulled the plug on an investigative committee looking into malfeasance in the legislative branch, whose initial recommendation called for public financing. The quashing of Cuomo's own Moreland Commission, as it was known, is what prompted the US Attorney's office to launch a massive investigation into the state legislature, which led to the arrest of Skelos.

What is needed in New York, and around the country, is a focus on laws that fundamentally change power dynamics to distribute more power to average people. Public funding of elections would help do that. Cuomo now has an opportunity to clean up Albany, by pushing hard on the Legislature, in the face of public anger over corruption, to deliver on long-stalled reform.

Ultimately, public financing won't take money out of politics, but it will lessen the influence of big money while increasing the influence of average people. That's what's needed, as democracy is not an end, it is a means for people to collaborate on shaping our society. But we must value the right of every person to have a meaningful say in that process, so that our policies better reflect the aggregate views of lots of people, not just the desires of a few people with lots of money. It's common sense. And if the rules that govern our politics create a nonsensical result, it's time to rewrite the rules.

Dave Palmer is Vice President and National Director of Advocacy at the Roosevelt Institute. He managed the Fair Elections for New York campaign most recently in early 2014.