State Legislators Gather Input from Experts on Campaign Finance Reform

BY MICHAEL RICONDA

Valley Cottage – State legislators met on Wednesday, May 8 at the Valley Cottage Library to consult representatives of various independent groups for advice on how to proceed with a planned campaign finance reform law.

The panel consisted of Senators David Carlucci, Jeff Klein and Diane Savino, who consulted members of public interest groups, think tanks and other nonpartisan organizations on the impact of a campaign finance reform package proposed by members of the legislature’s Independent Democratic Conference.

The proposed reform includes a $2,600 limit on campaign donations, the elimination of unregulated “housekeeping” accounts, a public matching option up to 6X and a repeal of the Wilson-Pakula Act, which allows the selection of candidates across party lines by the party’s chairman.

The public matching plank of the legislation, which would match small donations with public funds, is considered by many to be the centerpiece of the reform package. According to Savino, the law would not be a perfect fix, but would dissuade unethical fundraising by incentivizing proper behavior.

“It’s to reduce the dependence upon elected officials of having to spend so much of their time raising money, which separates them from the ability to interact with voters,” Savino explained. “As a result of us spending so much time raising money, we don’t spend as much time working on either issues or interacting with the people whose support we would like to get us elected.”

Though the inclusion of public matching received support from testifying experts, some had suggestions on how it could be improved. Americans for Campaign Finance Reform National Field Director Robert Werner suggested emulating Connecticut, which has a similar system but avoids many of the pitfalls he saw in New York City’s system.

“I think that Connecticut has a very good system that works well in terms of administration, and is actually very consumer-friendly with candidate services,” Werner argued.

Critics have called the public financing “welfare for politicians” and vowed to defeat it.

Wilson-Pakula created the most significant disagreement over its potential to undermine third parties. Citizens Action of New York Downstate Campaigns Manager Jesse Laymon explained it could make third party campaigns more difficult and reduce voter choices as a result.

Brennan Center for Justice Senior Counsel Adam Skaggs agreed with Laymon, explaining repeal would weaken third party candidates. However, Savino disagreed, arguing third parties would not be negatively affected.

When asked for comment, party chairs in Rockland County of third party and main party lines were not enthused with the proposed reform, which would open up primaries to candidates outside political parties. If any candidate can primary on any line, what is the point of political parties, chairs asked? Conservative Party Chairman Ed Lettre opined that the law would potentially ameliorate the influence of major party leadership even more than third parties.

Support for the campaign donation limit was virtually universal at the meeting, but like the public matching, some speakers raised questions about the necessity of a complete ban on housekeeping accounts. Common Cause NY Board Member Sean Coffey explained housekeeping accounts were acceptable as long as they were overseen and regulated.

“I do think that there is some value to housekeeping accounts as long as they’re modest and they’re not abused,” Coffey said.

Though the law will only impact state officials, local residents argued for its expansion to local elections. Rockland residents Robert Tompkins and Joe Ciardullo suggested banning major parties from cross-endorsements and making certain campaigns for local offices nonpartisan, removing influence from party bosses.

The attention to reform can be attributed to the recent corruption and bribery scandal which snared six state and local officials. The meeting was particularly relevant in Rockland, where Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and former Deputy Mayor Joseph Desmaret both stand accused of accepting payments in return for favors to private entities.

Similar meetings were previously held in Manhattan and continued with a meeting in Buffalo last Monday and another scheduled next week.