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A Huge Step Backward: New York State Fails to Pass Public Financing

J. Mijin Cha

Talk about a missed opportunity. Last night, the New York State legislature passed a $137.9 billion budget for the upcoming year. Senate Deputy Republican Leader Thomas Libous lauded the effort and said, “We, at least, have done our job and the budget is complete." Not quite. The budget may be complete, but legislators certainly did not do their job. Their job, as elected representatives, is to promote the interests of their constituents, which they completely failed to do by not including the fair elections proposal.

Earlier this year, Governor Cuomo introduced a fair elections proposal in his budget that would implement a public matching system for state political campaigns modeled after New York City’s successful system. The proposed program would match contributions up to $175 at a $6-$1 ratio. Under this system, a $50 donation becomes $350, an additional $300 in matching funds. The match heightens the importance of small donors and can shift the focus of candidates away from affluent and corporate donors.

The benefits of public financing are clear. First, public financing brings in more diverse donors, which leads to different voices being heard. Research has shown that since New York City’s program was implemented, there are more small donors contributing in New York City elections and that the donors are more diverse, racially and economically. In contrast, the trend nationwide is towards predominately white, affluent donors dominating electoral spending. Small donor systems allow the voice of average voters to be amplified.

Second, public financing can be the first step in restoring our democracy to one for the people, by the people. Connecticut's experience with public financing shows that once money is removed from the electoral system, lobbyists are less powerful, and the needs of working- and middle-class voters became priorities again. Their post-reform legislature passed the country's first statewide paid sick leave and an increase in the state's minimum wage. The state’s legislature also diversified with more women and people of color elected, more accurately reflecting the state’s demographics.

Finally, the ability of a few wealthy, elite donors to dominate our electoral system is drowning our democracy. Without an antidote, the vast majority of people cannot contribute campaign donations at a level even close to an elite donor. And the money advantage makes a difference. Recent research shows that you're far more likely to attract the attention of a legislator if you are a donor. This dynamic is the definition of a democracy for sale.

Governor Cuomo and the state legislature just missed out on one of the biggest opportunities to bring the state back to the voters and away from big money interests. The very small bone thrown—a public financing pilot program for the state comptroller race and some minimal ethics reforms—came at the expense of dissolution of the Moreland Commission. The Commission, which recommended implementing a statewide public financing program, will not be allowed to finish its investigation into corruption.

So no, Sen. Libous, you didn’t do your job. If you did, we wouldn’t be sitting here without a means to fight back against the money drowning out the average New Yorker's voice.