Is a Democracy Trust Fund a Good Idea?

Cecilia Tkaczyk’s victory is the latest sign that New Yorkers want a different campaign system and they want it now. Tkaczyk challenged a millionaire Assemblyman in a GOP-gerrymandered district and yet, despite a cash disadvantage and little name recognition, she managed to win by 19 votes. And, she managed to win based on her support for publicly financed elections. During the recount battle, she wrote, “If I do get sworn in, I’ll know my support for public financing is a central reason I won the job.”

As my colleague Liz Kennedy wrote, New York State is particularly in need of public financing. New York has one of the highest contribution limits in the country and individuals and limited liability corporations can give as much as $60,800 to candidates for statewide office. Even that limit is suspect as a recent NYPIRG report found that hundreds of donors give more money than is allowed every year and candidates fail to disclose large contributions that are given close to Election Day. The result is that a few monied interests dominate the political and legislative agenda, while those that can’t afford to give tens of thousands of dollars never have their voices heard.

Public financing changes this kind of dynamic by using public funds to match smaller donations. In a program like New York City’s, which matches 5 to 1, a $20 donation becomes a $100 donation and a $100 donation becomes $500. New York City’s program successfully diversified and increased the donor pool with more participation from lower income communities and communities of color. Candidates are now exposed to more diverse needs and priorities.

A similar program could be adopted in New York State and the roughly $2 each taxpayer would pay is a small price for a legislature that is more responsive to the needs of ordinary people. Funding the matching program through public funds removes the outsized influence of big money. Plus, the idea is extremely popular. A recent poll found an overwhelming amount of support for public financing. Seventy-nine percent of New Yorkers support a public matching funds program, including 74 percent of Republicans.

Despite such support, there is talk of using something besides taxpayer dollars for matching funds. A recent op-ed floated the idea of funding the matching program through a Democracy Trust Fund that would be capitalized with donations from individuals, corporations, nonprofits and unions. Adopting a Trust Fund undermines the whole point of public financing. It does not change the dynamics of the current system. Instead, it just shifts the point of influence from direct contributions to a broader general fund. Affluent and corporate interests would still set the agenda because candidates would still rely upon them for funds.

A majority of New Yorkers want a complete overhaul of our campaign finance system, not just modest reforms. The new system must be freed from depending on affluent and corporate interests. Only a purely publicly financed election system can provide that freedom.

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