Ending the Albany Arrangement: Getting Big Money out of New York Politics
For decades, New York State government failed to address the biggest challenges we face. During the 2019 Legislative Session, that slowly began to change. Serious protections for renters were passed over the objections of New York’s powerful real estate industry. Congestion pricing for Manhattan’s business districts and legislation calling for a far-reaching plan in response to climate change became law. Cash bail was abolished for most crimes and other overdue changes in criminal justice rules were enacted. Bump stocks that cause rifles to fire like machine guns were banned. Women’s rights and LGBTQ rights were enhanced in important ways.
Yet, the effort to truly reform the electoral process stalled well short of goals after a few notable successes. Contribution limits to political campaigns remain so high that bribery has effectively been legalized in New York State government. We have not yet rooted out the culture of corruption that in recent years has caused dozens of lawmakers to face criminal charges and the top lawmaker in each legislative chamber to wind up behind bars. Trading power for money creates an atmosphere that causes Albany’s leaders to act as if they are above the law in every respect. Within memory, a governor, a comptroller, and an attorney general have all resigned in disgrace for indecent behavior.
Unless we severely limit the corrupting influence of money in politics, the risk is high that Albany will revert to form and important initiatives will remain undone. We have yet to come to terms with rusting bridges, crumbling infrastructure, and failing public transit networks. Public housing slides further into disrepair each day. Young people of color are locked out of the quality education they deserve. Nearly one million New Yorkers have no health insurance. If decisions on these and other critical matters are made with special interests in mind, lawmakers in Albany will continue to fail us as they so often have in the past. Structural change is critical to maintain the recent momentum developing towards responsive government.
By adopting the policy proposals described below, New York State government will take significant steps towards freeing itself from the corrosive effects of large campaign contributions. These ideas will help ensure a government of elected officials that is responsive to the needs of all people, not just wealthy donors and powerful special interests.
Ban Fundraisers During Legislative Session
For 20 years, legislation has been introduced and ignored that would outlaw fundraisers during the legislative session and for one month before it starts. It is long past time for New York State to join the 29 others that prohibit this invitation to corruption. It is nearly impossible to prove a check distributed shortly before a vote influenced a decision, but the action creates the undeniable appearance of corruption and diminishes confidence in our elected officials.
Lawmakers who break the rules to attend a fundraiser during the legislative session should be required by law to donate all of the money from the fundraiser and a fine of an equal amount to a public fund to finance elections.
Lower Campaign Contribution Limits, Cap Candidate Spending, and Ban Contributions from PACs, LLCs, and Unions
The sheer size of donations permitted under New York State law invites corruption in state government and ensures wealthy contributors have more sway in Albany than the average citizen. Candidates for statewide office can currently receive $47,500 from an individual contributor, and more than $65,000 if a candidate faces a primary. There is little doubt that a contributor of that magnitude gains access that a citizen who does not have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on campaign contributions does not. State senators, who may accept $18,000 from individual donors, and Assembly members who may accept $9,000, are similarly compromised. In 2018 the 100 largest donors contributed more to state election campaigns than 137,000 small donors, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
These sky-high campaign limits flood Albany with corrupting cash and must be lowered. To minimize the effect of money on the policy-making process, candidates for statewide office, the State Senate, and the Assembly should be permitted to take no more than $5,000 from a single campaign contributor in both the primary and general elections.
Furthermore, to curb candidates’ insatiable need for campaign contributions, campaign expenditures should be capped. New York should limit spending by a candidate to $1 for each constituent represented. That would amount to less than $20 million for our three statewide officials: the governor, the comptroller, and attorney general. It would allow for a little more than $300,000 for State Senate races, and about $130,000 for Assembly races.
Finally, New York State should pass legislation to ban campaign contributions from political action committees, limited liability companies and other businesses, and unions. Only individual people should be allowed to contribute to elections for state elected officials.
Public Financing of Elections
Current New York law encourages candidates for public office to spend a large portion of their campaign time courting wealthy donors. Rather than seeking support from average citizens, candidates organize events with elite donors who can write large checks. The system ensures that wealthy donors have access to elected officials while average New Yorkers are left out of the policymaking process.
In order to level the playing field between wealthy donors and average New Yorkers, New York State should adopt a public campaign finance system. The one in place in New York City, which encourages candidates to seek support from New Yorkers of modest means, not just the wealthy, offers a worthy model.
If this system is adopted, candidates for statewide office, the State Senate, and the Assembly who meet minimum thresholds will be eligible to receive $8 of public matching funds for every dollar of donation up to $250. Statewide candidates with 1,000 contributors, State Senate candidates with 250 donors, and Assembly candidates with 100 donors would be eligible.
Five-Year Ban on Lobbying for Lawmakers and Senior Executive Staff
Current law prohibits state officials from becoming lobbyists for two years after they leave public service. A five-year ban on all members of the Assembly, the State Senate, and the senior executive staff would be better.
A longer gap between an individual serving as a lawmaker or state official and becoming a lobbyist provides better protection against votes being traded in return for promises of lucrative employment.
Mandatory Tax Return Disclosure for Elected Officials
Voters and the general public have a right to know how a policymaker’s vote or legislation might affect that legislator’s own financial interests. Increased transparency regarding the personal finances of policymakers will provide citizens with confidence that their elected officials are making decisions based on the general welfare, not their own bottom line.
Citizens must be residents of New York State for five years before running for state office. Lawmakers should add a provision that requires individuals running for public office to release five years of their state and federal tax returns.
The New York State legislature took an important step in 2019 when it passed legislation that allowed Congress to have access to the tax returns of President Trump and future presidents, as well as those of cabinet members, senior White House staff, and New York’s congressional representatives. They should adopt comparable transparency for themselves.
Reform the Joint Commission on Public Ethics
As currently constituted, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics is a well-intentioned, but poorly structured, entity charged with regulating lobbying in Albany. In order to provide teeth to a largely toothless Commission, the legislature should restructure the JCOPE along the lines of S. 594, proposed by Senator Liz Krueger.
This legislation would fix several critical flaws with the existing system. Under current law, just two of the governor’s appointees to the Commission can nullify an investigation or even a finding of a violation. A joint decision by just three of the state legislature’s appointees can have the same effect, essentially handing veto authority to the most political voices on the Commission.
The JCOPE requires reforms that take politics out of the equation. Rather than concentrating power in a handful of political appointees, a greater percentage of the board members should be selected from outside the governor’s office and legislative chambers. The JCOPE should consist of nine members, with five of the members selected by the chief judge of the State of New York and the presiding justices of each of the four appellate divisions, two selected by the legislative leaders, and the remaining two selected jointly by the three statewide officials (governor, attorney general, and comptroller). Critically, a ruling on an investigation should be determined by a majority.
The reformed JCOPE’s mandate should also be expanded to cover campaign finance, taking the place of the Board of Elections. Empowering a single body with jurisdiction over both lobbying and campaign finance matters will ensure that the root of Albany corruption — trading campaign cash for political favors — can be snuffed out by powerful authorities with access to all of the necessary information.
The time has come for New York to join the 15 states across the country that have enacted term limits for their public officials. For too long elected officials have camped out in Albany, raking in millions of dollars in campaign contributions, pursuing lucrative and corrupting side employment, and failing to tackle our state’s biggest challenges.
The legislature should enact, and the governor should sign, legislation that would limit governors, comptrollers, and attorneys general to two total terms in office, and members of the State Senate and Assembly to four terms, ensuring that no elected official in New York holds power for more than eight years.
These limits will provide for experienced legislators and leaders, but will prevent Albany from being overrun by career politicians intent on preserving the Albany Arrangement.
It is long past time for New York to root out the corruption that has prevented state government from meeting the needs of the people of our state. Only when we limit the size of campaign contributions will legislators and the executive put the general welfare above the interests of elite donors. Only by cracking down on pay-to-play access can we ensure that the best policy ideas win in Albany, rather than those sought by wealthy interests seeking to line their own pockets. A campaign finance system that encourages our elected leaders to reach out to every New Yorker has the potential to replace Albany’s current culture of corruption with a culture of commitment to meeting the challenges that confront us.
New York’s legislative and executive leaders should work together quickly to enact these policy proposals, and to end the Albany Arrangement for good.