Reform should start with public financing
The Moreland Commission will issue a preliminary report today on how to clean up Albany, something that obviously needs to happen but just as obviously won’t — at least without outside pressure. The commission is Gov. Cuomo’s attempt to exert such pressure on a recalcitrant Legislature. We don’t know what will be included in its report, but we know what should be.
Public financing of campaigns heads the list. This is one reform that the original Moreland Commission on Public Integrity recommended in 1990, as its chairman, John Feerick, reminded news organizations last week.
The recommendation was ignored by state lawmakers, and the result is money-obsessed Albany, where large donors have access and influence that regular people don’t; uncompetitive elections and political stultification because incumbents can out-fund-raise and outspend challengers; and corruption because, with so much money around, politicians are tempted to get it not just legally, but illegally.
New York City had the same kind of problems until 1988, when it adopted a public financing system that provides matching funds for small contributions, with participating candidates agreeing to accept contribution and spending limits. And the problems have largely gone away, especially as the system has been tweaked through the years to encourage more small donations. While the original plan provided a one-to-one match for the first $1,000 contributed to a candidate by a citizen, today the match is six-to-one for the first $175 contributed.
Other reforms are necessary in the areas of ethics and disclosure, including disclosure of lawmakers’ outside income. But none is so important to democracy and public trust as this one.