Public Dollars Should Not Determine Candidates

By Assemblyman Will Barclay
Public financing of political campaigns is on the Governor’s agenda this year. Cuomo said in his State of the State address in January, the state should mimic what New York City has done and publicly fund campaigns.

In this column, I want to outline for you why I believe publicly financing campaigns is a bad idea.

The most obvious fault of publicly funded campaigns is the considerable cost it would create for taxpayers.

The New York City system which the Governor refers to is a matching grant program for candidates. Candidates can receive up to six times the amount in public funding that they receive in private dollars.

That means that for every $1 raised for a campaign by candidate, taxpayer dollars match that with $6. Last year, the New York City Campaign Finance Department reported that $25 million in public funds were provided to candidates for city offices. If adopted at the State level, where there are many more elected offices, one could easily imagine how those costs would escalate.

Indeed, proponents of this type of system seem to understand how costs could escalate and, accordingly, they are proposing caps on just how much public funding a candidate can receive.

For example, in a bill proposed by the Speaker of the Assembly, candidates for Governor would be limited to receive $12,000,000 in public funding during the general election, the Attorney General and Comptroller candidates would be limited to receive $8,000,000, and State Senate and Assembly candidates would be limited to $350,000 and $150,000 respectively.

With 63 Senators and 150 Assembly members and with a potential of two or more candidates running for each of these offices, it doesn’t take a mathematician to understand how these numbers could quickly add up to a big cost for the state.

Instead of taking money out of the campaign system, this proposal would put more money in the system and, most troubling, it is your money!

Putting aside the potential costs, there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea that our tax dollars could go to candidates that some of us would never support at the polls.

To put it plainly, if you are a registered Democrat and typically vote Democratic in election, your taxpayer dollars could be given to candidates who meet certain criteria regardless of their political agenda.

That is, a Democrat taxpayer’s dollars could go to a Republican candidate and vice versa.

I understand that taxpayer money very often goes to programs and projects that any individual citizen may not support.  However, electing representatives is at the very heart of our democratic system.

It seems to me that an individual should run on his or her merit and we should not use public money in effort to “level” the playing field for other candidates.

Even if one could get past these issues, the question remains whether publicly financed campaigns address the problems that proponents of such a system say they would – namely, low voter and candidate participation and the influence of private money in campaigns.

We need to look no further than to New York City to realize that this campaign system is far from anything we would want to emulate on the State level. NYC’s system of campaign financing has not accomplished any of the goals that supporters of the system said it would.

Since instituting public financing of campaigns in NYC races in 1989, voter turnout in NYC is has dropped to its lowest level since 1969.

These levels are lower than Upstate where no such public financing system exists.  Nor does it seem to have made races any more competitive.

Last year, almost half of NYC council candidates faced no serious competition.

Further, while not entirely fair to attribute corruption to a campaign financing system, it is clear that NYC’s system hasn’t ended corruption. For example, one New York City candidate accepted over $1 million in taxpayer money and then threw victory dinners costing more than $20,000, according to reports.

Another received $2.2 million in tax dollars and used campaign funds to pay more than $1,000 in parking tickets as well as travel to Puerto Rico.

Finally, it would be hard to argue that the influence of private money has decreased in NYC elections when Mayor Bloomberg spent a record $102 million on his last election.

In short, the term “campaign finance reform” sounds like a good one.

However, as they say, the devil is in the details.

Rather than publicly finance campaigns, we need laws that require greater disclosure, so the public can easily determine who supports a candidate.

Further, we should be very wary of the rhetoric from those who call for limiting speech by certain groups during campaigns in the name of reform.

Those who advocate for this often really mean they want to suppress the speech of those with whom they disagree.

If you have any questions or comments on this or any other state issue, or if you would like to be added to my mailing list or receive my newsletter, please contact my office.

My office can be reached by mail at 200 N. Second St., Fulton, NY 13069, by e-mail at [email protected] or by calling (315) 598-5185.

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