Times Union op-ed
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been a late and reluctant supporter of key measures to advance a more fair economy in New York. He fought extending the millionaire’s tax, only supporting a watered-down version when Occupy Albany tagged him as “Governor 1 Percent.”
This year, he repeatedly echoed conservative arguments against a modest increase in the minimum wage, before half-heartedly supporting it as the legislative session ended with any action.
So it is very welcome news to see him championing the public financing of elections in New York, one of the most important steps toward building a more fair economy that New York could take.
What, you ask, does a campaign finance reform measure have to do with economic fairness?
Everything. We won’t have an economy that works for everyone as long as our government is a captive of super-rich campaign contributors and corporations.
New Yorkers understand this in their gut. As pollster Stan Greenberg likes to point out, voters get that “the middle-class won’t catch a break until we confront the power of money and politics.” It’s no wonder that voters think that elected officials are beholden to CEO campaign contributors when they see candidates for office toadying to the wealthy and corporate lobbyists at campaign fundraisers.
To take just one example, organizations and corporations opposed to increasing the minimum wage gave 71 percent out of nearly $400,000 to state Senate Republicans and their campaign committees, who have been the biggest roadblock to increasing the minimum wage.
Another example is the strident opposition of the Business Council of New York State, the lobbying group for big business, to closing corporate tax loopholes that allow profitable corporations to pay little if anything in state taxes. The Board of Directors of the Business Council and the corporations they work for donated over $1.9 million since January 1, 2010, to campaign accounts for state senators and the major political parties.
Under the legal doctrine established by the Supreme Court during the last 36 years, it is very difficult to regulate the flow of big money into elections. In 1976. the court ruled, in effect, that “money is speech,” prohibiting limits on campaign spending. And 2010 the court decided that “corporations are people,” ending a century-old ban on corporate political giving.
But even in this legal thicket, one powerful measure remains to change who elected officials serve: public financing. It is common sense that elected officials will be beholden to the people and institutions that bankroll their campaigns.
Under the current system, to run for office, you need to raise money from the wealthy and PACs. But under the Fair Elections public financing that Cuomo is championing, candidates can compete for office by raising small contributions, matched by public funds.
In return for a candidate agreeing to limit his or her campaign spending, Fair Election candidates will receive matching public dollars whenever they get a smaller contribution from a New York resident. As a result, voters will be able to mark their ballots for candidates who are beholden to small contributors, not to the rich who finance campaigns now.
A Fair Elections system also makes it possible for people to run for office whose personal contact files are not filled with the rich and lobbyists. Instead, ordinary people who have spent years working at the community level can turn to their friends and neighbors to ask for small contributions, which will be magnified with matching public dollars to generate enough funds to compete.
In Maine, where a similar system has been in place for years, that has led to grass-roots candidates of both major political parties being elected to the state legislature.
To build an economy that works for all of us, we’ll need our government to be accountable to working families and the middle class. Cuomo’s pledge to campaign for Fair Elections legislation this fall, when voters will be electing a new Legislature, is the biggest step he’s taken to a long-term solution for a fair economy in New York.
Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute in New York City. He previously was the leader of Citizen Action of New York.