The following is an opinion article submitted by Andrew Gounardes, a local attorney, vice president of the Bay Ridge Democrats and 2012 candidate for State Senate
Last week, the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption released a report detailing an enraging, though not surprising, level of corruption in our state government. The Commission’s report identified so many illegal activities, and incredulous abuses of legal activities, they can’t all be listed here. Here’s just a sampling of the worst offenses:
- Pay-to-play politics – High-powered donors contribute to political campaigns in exchange for legislation that would reap a windfall on their business interests. One developer received a real estate tax credit worth $50 million last year just to build one luxury building in Manhattan.
- Campaign finance loopholes – New York has some of the highest campaign contribution limits in the country, and yet many donors skirt those rules by donating through different corporate and LLC accounts. One donor was found to have used 25 different corporate accounts to make $3 million in contributions.
- Misuse of campaign funds – There are no meaningful limits on what politicians can spend their campaign dollars on. Members of the legislature routinely use campaign funds to pay for personal expenses such as car leases and personal mortgages.
So what can we do to limit, if not outright stop, such blatant corruption? The answer is pretty simple and we already do it in New York City: public financing of elections.
Currently, the campaign finance system rewards big donors and the politicians they donate to. If we lower the amount of money someone can donate to a campaign, incentivize small-dollar donations through a public matching system, and limit how those campaign dollars are spent, we can break the corruption cycle of wealthy donors buying off politicians and politicians using campaign funds to pay for vacation homes and luxury cars.
Public financing will also make politicians more responsive to voters. Under New York City’s system, any contribution up to $175 gets matched by city dollars at a rate of 6:1; a $175 donation is really worth $1050. Under the current rules in New York State, one donor who contributes $1000 has more influence than five donors who each contribute $175. That’s ridiculous. If we replicated the New York City program at the state level, those five donors contributing $175 would outweigh the one donor contributing only $1000.
Opponents of campaign finance reform say that it costs too much money. They feign outrage at spending tax dollars on political campaigns and hope that if they scream loud enough, you won’t notice why the really oppose reform: because they benefit enormously from the status quo.
Here’s the truth: public financing of campaigns will cost approximately $41 million a year, or just $3.20 per taxpayer in New York per year. In other words, getting rid of corruption in New York State will cost $9 million LESS than the $50 million tax break that our politicians gave to that luxury building developer last year. Think about that: one fewer tax break to a wealthy donor can pay for a more honest government.
To me, the answer seems clear. Let’s start cleaning up Albany and start restoring faith in state government again by enacting true campaign finance reform.
Andrew Gounardes is an attorney, vice president of the Bay Ridge Democrats and 2012 candidate for State Senate