Tax-Financed Campaigns and Corruption in New York: The Wrong Treatment for the Right Diagnosis

May 13, 2015   •  By Luke Wachob   •  ,   •  
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The arrest of New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on federal corruption charges has added fuel to the already fiery debate over just what’s wrong with Albany. Ciara Torres-Spelliscy makes a sharp observation on the subject:

“In 2004 the Brennan Center called Albany the most dysfunctional legislature in the nation. One of the reasons Albany earned this ignoble title was the power in the New York legislature had pooled around the feet of two individuals: (1) the Speaker of the Assembly and (2) the Senate Majority Leader. These two men had (and have) a near stranglehold on the legislative process.

Add in the Governor of New York to these two and there are the “Three Men in Room” (sic) who control New York State government. Nothing can get done unless all three agree, which makes Albany a graveyard for good ideas.”

Power corrupts, and in New York there is ample evidence of that. Each of Skelos’s four predecessors was previously indicted, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested on corruption charges in late January.

Torres-Spelliscy veers off course, however, when she turns to potential solutions. If the problem is the power structure of the Legislature, then the solution probably lies in adjusting the power structure of the Legislature, right? Apparently not. Instead, Torres-Spelliscy falls back on that old favorite of the pro-regulation community – tax-financed campaigns:

“And yet at the very same time, there was a near vice grip by incumbents on their seats in Albany. As two of my former Brennan Center colleagues noted, for years, it was more likely for a member of the New York legislature to die in office than to lose a general election. This is why advocates of changing Albany’s corrupt culture have focused on campaign finance reform as one solution to break the fever. The basic idea is if there were public financing of elections, then private money would not be the only path to elected office in Albany; therefore a better and more diverse group of candidates would toss their hats in the ring.”

What would tax-financed campaigns do to lessen the power held by the “three men in a room?” Nothing. Torres-Spelliscy offers only the vague hope that under tax-financed campaigns, legislatures will finally be filled with the “right” people who will, despite decades of history to the contrary, solve the endemic problems.

Not only is this a pipe dream (more on that in a moment), it ignores the repeated pattern of corruption in the state’s most powerful offices. Skelos and Silver were not aberrations; they were continuations of a long history of corruption in the state Legislature. And if the problem is the system and not the individuals, then electing the “right” people without reforming the Legislature they inhabit is a recipe for further corruption and a waste of taxpayer dollars. At best, Torres-Spelliscy is confusing reforming campaigns with reforming the Legislature. At worst, she is exploiting a rash of corruption arrests to push an unrelated policy agenda.

But even if we naively believed that electing new people would solve New York’s problems, tax-financed campaigns fail to accomplish even that. Torres-Spelliscy cites no evidence to her claim that “a better and more diverse group of candidates” would result from such a program. On the contrary, the nation’s leading program evaluator, the Government Accountability Office, conducted an extensive study of tax-financed campaign programs in Arizona and Maine and found “[t]here were no statistically significant differences observed for … contestedness (number of candidates per race) and incumbent reelection rates” in both states’ programs.

CCP’s own research further challenges the claim that tax-financed campaigns produce more diverse legislatures. Our studies of state-level tax-financing programs found that they do not decrease the dominance of citizens elected from business and law backgrounds in legislatures, and do not increase the percentage of women elected to state legislatures. Rather than reshaping the makeup of the legislature, taxpayers are simply left footing the bill for politicians who would have run anyway. Furthermore, there is also evidence that legislators do not substantially change their views after receiving government funding for their campaigns.

When it comes to reducing corruption, Albany need only look to New York City to see how these schemes fail. Despite being touted by activists as a model for New York State and the entire nation, a CCP study found that New York City’s tax-financing program doled out over $19.2 million between 2001 and 2013 to candidates who were later investigated for corruption-related offenses. For example, former mayoral candidate John Liu bilked taxpayers to the tune of over $1.3 million dollars in a straw donor scheme aimed at receiving more public funding. CCP President David Keating shared that story along with many other equally egregious acts committed by program participants in testimony to the New York State Senate Elections Committee in May 2013.

Corruption in New York is a serious issue, requiring serious solutions. It is disappointing that Torres-Spelliscy cannot see any path other than giving government control over the financing of campaigns, but it is also instructive. Advocates of tax-financed campaigns have their hammer – now all they see are nails.

Luke Wachob

Luke Wachob