November 13, 2013

You've Got to be Kidding Me

William Fitzpatrick, Onondaga County's District Attorney for Life, is apparently getting an eyeful in his role as one of the chairs of New York's Moreland Commission.

In a recent radio interview recapped in the local newspaper, he talked about what he's seeing and how it's making him a believer in public financing of campaigns.
I'm a fiscal conservative. If the money's not there, I'm inclined not to spend it. But in reality, based on what I've learned over the last couple of months, I'm now a proponent of public financing... The savings would ultimately be astronomical in the long run.
Yes, it's true -- some politicians (but not District Attorneys) can be swayed by the ridiculous amount of money available to them from donors, PACs, corporations, unions etc., and it can get expensive prosecuting them and getting the out of office when they break the law. 

The higher cost, of course, is the loss of faith in the system, which leads to dissatisfaction with the process, which leads to low voter turnout, which increases the powers of incumbency, which makes the politicians more attractive to big money donors, and it just goes round and round.  And there's also the bad legislation we get as a result of making the donors happy.

Like Fitzpatrick, I think we have ethical issues in politics and politicians from both on both sides of the aisle. After all, no one has a monopoly on bad acts. But I disagree that public financing is the answer.  My concern, plain and simple, is that I don't trust the politicians to come up with any viable way to enact reasonable public financing laws.  We're talking about restricting their bread and butter, after all. Further, Albany politicians have a proven track record of protecting their interests first, and yours and mine second.  Take redistricting, for example. Or their slow, strolling-through-molasses realization that they're better off without ethically-challenged members in their midst.

Fitzpatrick mentioned that 'crininality' had been found, and that the party 'housekeeping accounts' are being misused, and that LLCs (which allow virtually unlimited contributions) are bad, among other things.  The housekeeping accounts are supposed to be used for non-campaign related things, like voter registration for instance. Common Cause/NY, a non-profit advocacy group, issued a scathing report earlier this year on the housekeeping accounts. It outlines a pretty sorry state of affairs.

The LLCs?  Well, those are set up to help people get around campaign contribution limits.  The candidates, for their part, take the money and then try and convince themselves (and us) that it doesn't mean anything and that you and I are just as important as the big-money LLC donors.  Are you buying that?

My solution is not public funding of elections, typically through some sort of matching fund programs.  My solution limits the money differently:  by allowing contributions only from living, breathing residents of the district in which the candidate is running or was elected.  This solves more issues and doesn't require taxpayer dollars. It also helps restore trust in the process, and eventually I might be at least as important to my elected representative as, say, some powerful downstate Democrat in the Assembly, or some powerful upstate Republican in the senate, or our Sonova Governor, or a union, or some out-of-state billionaire with an agenda.

Back to Fitzpatrick.  He also honed in on how some pols report their campaign account reimbursements. From the article:
There's no specificity at all. We're talking about thousands and in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars on unspecified reimbursements.
We should be able to see how campaign funds are being spent, and I would of course prefer that elected officials or candidates use these contributions on campaign expenses -- you know, advertising, polling, campaign offices and phone banks and whatnot.  To me, it's as important how they spend the money as it is where the money comes from.

I want to see everyone report their expenses. Like Fitz did. In case you missed it, here are some of the ways he has spent his campaign contributions over the course of the past several years:
  • $63,000+ on restaurants and bars
  • $57,000+ on golf-related activities
  • $53,000+ on donations to other people's campaigns or political parties
  • $61,000+ reimbursing himself
I look at those numbers, and (taking a page out of Fitzpatrick's own quote book) I can only ask, "you've got to be kidding me, you're surprised by the behavior you're seeing?

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