The Challenge of Campaign-Finance Reform

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

Talks on reforming New York’s campaign-finance system recently fell apart in Albany. No surprise there. Of all the possible government reforms, campaign finance could be the most unpopular among legislators, perhaps running even with nonpartisan redistricting.

The reason is obvious. These two powers – to raise buckets of campaign cash and to draw the borders of legislative districts (including those you want and excluding those you don’t) – form the heart of incumbent power in the Legislature. Getting them voted into law by those very same incumbents will be a neat trick.

Yet Gov. Eliot Spitzer promised during last year’s campaign to work to fundamentally change how state government works, and in the past week he has made a slew of proposals following through on that pledge. Not only did he propose to lower various types of campaign contribution limits, he also proposed legislation to overhaul the court system and to revamp election law, including, yes, establishing a redistricting process independent of (though influenced by) the Legislature. (He also introduced a bill to allow marriage between gay people – it was a busy week.)

Campaign finance landed with the loudest thud. Spitzer had hoped to negotiate a deal and announce it April 23, the day that civic groups across the state had chosen to gather at the Capitol and make their annual push for several reforms of government. Instead, he blamed the Republicans who control the state Senate for the lack of an agreement.

The main point of contention was a Spitzer proposal to ban contributions from corporate subsidiaries and limited liability corporations, which the governor says are just ways for businesses to get around the $5,000 annual contribution limit imposed by current state law. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno wouldn’t go along with it, saying it was an unfair restriction.

Spitzer also wants to lower the contribution limit for individuals to a statewide campaign to $15,000 from $55,900 and place a $50,000 cap on individuals, corporations, unions and political action committees giving to political party housekeeping accounts (which are supposed to be used for general party-building efforts and not campaigns). New York has some of the highest contribution limits in the nation, and currently there is no limit on donations to housekeeping accounts.

It’s not hard to see why the proposals rattled Bruno. Republicans outnumber Democrats by just four in the Senate. Bruno’s majority has shrunk in recent years and been directly threatened by Spitzer, who has vowed to help elect Democrats to take over the house. By one measure, Bruno depends more heavily on contributions from partnerships (including LLCs) than either Spitzer or Assembly Democrats.

Between July and November 2006, Bruno’s personal campaign committee took in $57,300 from partnerships, 15% of the total during that time period. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s committee received just $4,000 from partnerships, 11% of the total. And Spitzer’s committee raked in $147,850, but that was just 5% of his total.

This is just a small piece of the picture, as it doesn’t include contributions to the party and house committees controlled by Bruno, Silver and Spitzer that take in some of the largest donations. That points to another problem with the campaign-finance system — despite the fact that contributions must be reported to the state Elections Board and the board makes those lists public, it requires hours and not a small measure of expertise to make any sense of it.

In addition, important information is often left out of the records, including the dates of contributions and the type of contributor making the donation (individual, corporation, partnership, etc.). Unlike the federal government, the state does not require contributors to disclose the names of their employers or the names of people who actually delivered the contributions (“bundlers” play a key role in collecting and delivering groups of donations).

All this makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to track patterns and understand the stories behind the numbers about who is giving what to whom. Also, since the first campaign filing for the year is not due until July 15, there is no reporting of campaign contributions made during the legislative session.

Civic groups concerned about the influence of money in state politics are pushing not only for lower limits and better disclosure but also for public financing of campaigns. That seems to me a tough sell to a cynical electorate. We have some of the highest taxes in the nation, and we should spend taxpayer money on political campaigns?

Lower limits and better disclosure would be welcome changes for those concerned that special interests hold too much sway over the Legislature. But committed contributors have historically found ways around whatever limits are imposed – that’s one reason the system has become so messy. And disclosure has its limits too – getting their names in the newspaper doesn’t seem to have shamed anyone into not giving or receiving yet. This may be an area where, for all our desire for radical change, we may have to settle for incremental progress.