Trust fund may help with campaign reform

Jerry Goldfeder in Times Union, January 23, 2013

Media Source

Now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has worked his famous magic with the passage of marriage equality and tough gun laws, he seems ready to tackle serious campaign finance reform. The timing would be propitious.

After all, we just endured a $6 billion presidential election into which wealthy individuals, corporations and unions poured unrestricted amounts of cash, And in New York, individuals and limited liability corporations are able to give as much as $60,800 to candidates for statewide office — one of the highest contribution limits in the United States.

The governor has proposed a public matching program similar to New York City's. Initiated by Mayor Ed Koch 25 years ago, it is widely acknowledged to be a success. The city law reduces the influence of money in campaigns, encourages more diversity in candidates, and fosters greater competition.

Speaker Sheldon Silver and the Democrat-controlled Assembly have long supported public financing of elections, but the Senate is the bottleneck. Senate Republicans say they are reluctant to use taxpayer dollars for campaigns.

A study conducted several years ago by the National Civil League, however, showed that the cost per New York City resident for its program averages only 57 cents per year. Even if a statewide matching program for the 213-member Legislature and four statewide officials were to triple that cost, the individual's tax burden would remain quite negligible. Nevertheless, opponents in the Senate have been hard to move.

The governor suggests that publicly funded campaigns be paid for by sources other than taxpayer dollars, but has not offered specifics yet.

Here's one: Albany could set up a Democracy Trust Fund, to which individuals, corporations, nonprofits and unions would contribute. The state attorney general would be the administrator of the trust, reprising the Department of Law's jurisdiction over campaign compliance, which it exercised for much of the 20th century. The department's lawyers would manage and monitor the matching fund program — just as the independent Campaign Finance Board does in New York City.

Like many other private-public projects, the Democracy Trust Fund has the potential to provide a valuable service at no extra cost to taxpayers. A great many affluent individuals and established institutions want to see fundamental reform in New York. The challenge would be to persuade them to fund this type of program, and to sustain it over the long term.

There is no ideal campaign finance reform. Assuming specifics could be worked out, the Democracy Trust Fund might be just the ticket to persuade Albany to act.

Jerry H. Goldfeder is an election and campaign finance lawyer at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP. He teaches election law at Fordham Law School and University of Pennsylvania Law School. He was special counsel to Cuomo when he served as attorney general.