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NEWS from the Office of the New York State Comptroller
Contact: Press Office 518-474-4015

DiNapoli Op-Ed: New York Should Opt Into Public Financing of Elections

August 26, 2015

New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s op-ed, “New York Should Opt into Public Financing of Elections”was published in The Albany Times Union today, urging the state Legislature to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform in New York, including public funding of elections for all state offices.

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In 2014, I faced one of the hardest decisions of my career: Should I opt into a public financing program for the Comptroller’s race or not? For years, I had called for public financing of political campaigns. I’d even pushed my own legislation to start with the State Comptroller’s office.

But now I was faced with a deeply flawed pilot program that had been rushed into law for an election a mere seven months later. The legislation was sloppy, inadequate and unsound in so many ways that good government groups that had spent decades fighting for this change were outraged and encouraged me to reject it.

In the end, I agreed with the advocates and chose not to participate in the pilot. There were too many signs that the program was doomed from the start. Perhaps it was designed to fail.

A new report from the state Board of Elections validates these concerns, noting the “extremely short” time frame to implement the plan and the hurdles that made it impractical or impossible for candidates to participate.

But the failure of one poorly designed plan should not dissuade New York from considering and adopting real public campaign finance reform.

I commend the state Board of Elections for making thoughtful suggestions on how to make a new public finance system viable: officials must have at least two years to implement a program and those seeking public financing need the proper time to opt-in and meet participation thresholds.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 13 states across the country offer some kind of public financing to political candidates, and those systems have been proven to work. New York City has operated under a voluntary publicly funded system for more than 20 years. While not perfect, it is successful in promoting competition and reducing the influence of private donations.

In this era of extreme voter cynicism brought on by a seemingly endless series of corruption scandals, it’s time for the state to get on board. We need comprehensive campaign finance reform in New York now, including public funding of elections for all state offices: Governor, Comptroller, Attorney General, State Senate and Assembly.

Campaigns are big business in New York, and vast sums are required to mount an effective race, especially for statewide office. Anyone who is not wealthy but wants to run for office is often denied the opportunity because he or she simply can’t self-fund a campaign. We need to consider the cost to our state of this system that keeps too many ordinary, qualified people out of public office; away from creating the laws we all must follow.

Current contribution limits for statewide offices are $19,700 for a primary and $41,100 for a general election. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median annual household income in New York State in 2013 was $58,000. How can New Yorkers believe in a system that lets statewide candidates accept contributions larger than the average family’s household income?    

Many believe the influence of big money in politics sometimes causes elected officials to forget the best interests of their constituents. This is eroding voter confidence in the process.

The best place to start cleaning up government is at the beginning: election to office. Public financing allows regular citizens who do not have access to established political fundraising circles the ability to raise money and compete in elections. Matching funds for smaller contributions also forces candidates to focus on grassroots donors.

A new financing system in New York is a relatively low cost tool that allows candidates and elected officials to make decisions without undue influence from large campaign contributors, taking the perception of pay-to-play off the table. The non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute suggested the cost for public financing would be $26 million to $41 million annually – a few dollars per New Yorker for a sound investment in a more open, transparent state government.

The bottom line is that we must change the old ways of raising money in Albany. It’s time for New York State to build a new foundation of public trust by enacting campaign finance reform in time for the next state election.