February 26, 2019

Meanwhile Back in Albany (v29)

Nathaniel Brooks/NY Times photo
We've talked about the new high-speed legislative agenda here in New York this session, now that the Dems are in charge of the whole shebang that is NY's state government.

One of the items in that agenda was a tip of the hat towards campaign finance reform. Recently, in that regard, our Sonofa Gov signed legislation that closed the LLC loophole, from which the governor and many other elected officials have benefited greatly over time. LLCs now are stuck with the same $5,000 limit, and there's also additional transparency required. Other changes to how we vote in NY were also made.

I say tip of the hat, because there's so much more that can be done, in my opinion, and as I was catching up on last week's newspapers, I saw my state Senator Rachel May's commentary in the op-ed section of my local paper talking about campaign finance reform. And while that reminded me that I'm still waiting for a response on a few questions I sent her 10 days ago on the failed Amazon deal, I was interested in what more she thinks needs to be done on one of my favorite topics.

She referenced two additional things we need: reducing the amount of money individuals can give, and "amplifying" the power of small donors.

Let's take a look.

May points out that in New York, one person can donate over $60,000 - $60,000! - to a candidate for governor or AG, if you combine the primary and general elections. For state Senators, the limit is $18,000 - higher than in any other state, and she says, "far higher than what people can give to a candidate for Congress or president."

This is true -- and it's insane, especially when you look at information on contribution limits posted by the NYS Board of Elections (emphasis added):
The NYS Election Law established certain limits on contributions that can be given and received by candidates and political committees, as well as limits on contributions that can be given by individuals and other entities. Contribution limits were established to, among other things, curtail the amount of influence, through money, that a contributor can have on elections and the election process.
Yeah, thinking that if you want to curtail the amount of influence that a contributor can have, you might want to make it so they can't contribute a year's NYS median income to a candidate. It's good to see my Senator wanting to change that.

On 'amplifying the power of small donors, here's what May is talking about.
We should amplify the power of small donors, so that candidates have more incentive to reach out to the broadest base of voters, rather than devoting most of their attention to the people with deep pockets. A small donor matching system - in which modest donations from from people within the candidate's district are multiplied with matching funds financed by the public at large - would boost the voices of working New Yorkers and break big money's stranglehold on state government.  This would also help level the playing field and give more people the chance to run for office and represent their communities. 
She goes on to suggest that net worth shouldn't be the driver of political influence, and that the majority of her contributions were from small donors.  Matching funds, she says, for "small, local donations" makes fundraising "a positive exercise in participatory democracy."

I agree with her on the need to emphasize local contributions for local races. While May doesn't mention it, in my opinion we are hurt just as badly when outsiders - whether from within New York State or from outside the state - make contributions to candidates. To me, that's almost worse than single individuals within the district maximizing contributions up to the legal limit - at least they live here and can be directly impacted by votes their elected officials take. But what are outsiders doing meddling in the election for my state Senator and Assemblyman, for my congressional candidate, or even for my governor and other state elected officials? Who are they to exert influence on my choices?

The other thing that's not mentioned here is the influence of union money in elections; after all, how can we consider corporate money bad, if we don't do the same for money received from unions, and from trade associations and lobbying organizations and the like? Good for the goose and so on, right?
Honestly, if we're not willing to draw a basic line that donations from actual living, breathing individuals from the district in question are better than money from 'things', aren't we going about this all wrong?

I will give Senator May credit - the vast majority of her contributions - nearly 79% - were from in-state donors, and 72% were from individual contributors, something that is not always the case.  She did however, received $11,000 each from the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, the New York State United Teachers, Local 1199 SEIU United Health Care Workers, and from the campaign committee of now Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

Additional contributions were received from the following non-people (identifiable in-district organizations are italicized):
  • No IDC NY - $7,000
  • Communications Workers New Jersey District 1 - $5,000
  • Service Employees Local 32BJ - $5,000
  • Tenants PAC - $3,000
  • No Bad Apples - $3,000
  • Planned Parenthood Empire State Votes - $2,000
  • National Institute for Reproductive Health Action Fund - $2,000
  • Emily's List - $1,000
  • Friends of Kevin Parker - $1,000 
  • Madison County Democratic Cmte - $1,000
  • Grace Meng Campaign Cmte - $1,000
  • Brian Kavanagh Campaign Cmte - $1,000
  • David Carlucci Campaign Cmte - $1,000
  • 17th Ward Democratic Committee LUB - $1,000
  • Jackson for Senate 2018 - $1,000
  • Theatrical Stage Employees Local 1 - $500
  • Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats - $500
  • Oneida County Democratic Cmte - $500
  • Social Justice - $500
And, also noteworthy? $500 from Susan Sarandon.

Do we need to do better, at least incrementally, such as what May suggests? Sure - but let's also focus on the larger picture and really get down to the crux of the issue: the voters in an election district have the right (actually, the obligation, but that's a whole nother post) to determine who represents them - and the best way to do that is to get all of the non-person, non-district money out of the race.

That will help limit how much gets spent overall, and it should go a long way towards making sure that when I email my Senator, for example, I'll be answered with the same level of timeliness and attention that would be given to an email from a union, a political action committee, an issues group, or a Hollywood star.

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