This November, New Yorkers will be asked to vote on changes to the city’s campaign-finance law. A Charter Review Commission appointed by Mayor de Blasio recommended lowering contribution limits and making the public-financing program more generous.
Advocates argue, with justification, that concerns about public corruption are widespread. But that could be said to be evidence against campaign-finance reform.
New York’s “matching funds” program launched in the late 1980s. Are New York officials generally seen as more virtuous than those who lead cities that haven’t had a system of public financing in place for three decades? If not, public financing’s benefits must be far less than what advocates claim.
It’s hard to argue that public financing attracts higher-quality candidates, given that both corrupt and noncorrupt officials alike have participated in the program.
Through public financing, the government gives candidates money for campaign expenses. The city kicks in $6 for every $1 a resident donates, up to $175. The November ballot proposal would bump up the limit for citywide-office candidates to $250 and the ratio to 8:1 for all candidates.
It would also roll back the contribution limits for all candidates, whether they participate in public financing or not. Along with tight contribution limits, public matching funds are meant to boost the influence of the little guy and diminish that of special interests.
Campaign-finance reform’s target has long been said to be the “perception” of corruption, not just its reality. This is, in part, an acknowledgment that public policy is too blunt of an instrument to combat corruption in its manifold varieties.
If governments are going to award billions in contracts for various purposes, there will always be a risk that someone, somewhere, is going to arrange a kickback.
Yet it’s hard to argue that public financing attracts higher-quality candidates, given that both corrupt and noncorrupt officials alike have participated in the program. The “Preliminary Staff Report” of the Charter Revision Commission cites the case of Dan Halloran, a former Queens City Councilmember, as a recent example of public corruption.
Halloran was a beneficiary of public financing. Indeed, in a 2010 report, the Brennan Center for Justice, a leading reform advocate, highlighted Halloran’s participation in the matching funds program, which allowed him to defeat a better-funded opponent in 2009, as an example of its success.
Just a few years later, Halloran was caught on tape accepting a $7,500 bribe and uttering the immortal line: “You can’t get anything without the f- - king money. Money is what greases the wheels — good, bad or indifferent.”
What’s more, judging by voter-turnout rates, the injection of tens of millions of “clean” public dollars into campaigns appears to have made little impression on the electorate.
In the first two mayoral elections under public financing, 1989 and 1993, voter turnout was 60 percent and 57 percent, respectively; in the most recent two elections, only 26 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
Over the years, there has been a steady drop in turnout that’s coincided even as the size of the match has risen — from 1:1 to 4:1 in 1998 and then 6:1 in 2007. The limit on how much is matched also declined, to be sure the benefit only goes to the smallest of donors.
Plainly, more generous public financing hasn’t led to more civic engagement at the voting booth.
Of course, one reason why most New Yorkers aren’t turning out to vote is because most races are grossly uncompetitive. Last November, of the 59 races for city office, only four were decided by less than 20 percentage points. But why hasn’t public financing helped with that problem?
The offer of government support for election work is supposed to encourage more outsiders to run for office. Yet former staffers, union functionaries and previous officeholders make up much of the ruling political class in New York; “outsider” is about the last word that comes to mind.
True, matching funds, which totaled $17.7 million in 2017, don’t threaten the city’s solvency. But the cost should be evaluated not relative to City Hall’s $90 billion budget or the burden on each of the 8.6 million New Yorkers but on its effectiveness.
More generous public financing hasn’t led to more civic engagement at the voting booth.
The Charter Commission’s proposals — which proponents assume will increase matching-fund costs — asks voters to give more money to a program that serves little discernible purpose other than sustaining the pride of the city’s good-government community.
Campaign finance is mostly a sordid business, but not entirely. The ability to raise money is one important way for serious candidates to distinguish themselves from frivolous ones.
It’s an especially valuable benchmark in state and local races, where public polling is fairly scant.
If contributions are subject to sufficient disclosure laws, most problems with “money in politics” can be dealt with by the press and rival candidates.
Public financing does not produce better candidates, more candidates, more competitive elections, less corruption, less perception of corruption or higher rates of voter turnout. Other than that, it’s a great idea.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Post