An Antidote to Citizens United?
Last week, 72 New York State Assemblymen sent a letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver urging him to support a public financing program for primary, general, and special election campaigns for statewide offices. Such a program would match modest contributions with public funds, which allow small contributors to have a larger impact and brings more donors into the political process. As New York legislators consider adopting a public financing system, a new report from Demos shows the positive impact public financing has had in Connecticut.
Fresh Start: The Impact of Public Financing in Connecticut analyzes how public financing has affected both legislators and the legislative process by complimenting empirical data studies with interviews of current and former legislators. Connecticut has offered public financing for candidates running for statewide office, the General Assembly, and the State Senate since 2008. The report finds that the program is very popular and that 77 percent of current legislators and all statewide office holders were publicly financed.
One of the most interesting findings of the report was that public financing enabled legislators to focus more on the merits and substance of proposals, rather than what lobbyists or special interests want. As Republican Representative Al Adinolfi said, “Now, [after public financing] people concentrate more on the issues, read the issues. You see more votes that are bipartisan and the big issues get bipartisan votes.” Additionally, as former Representative Juan Figueroa noted, “Now, you get to the merit of the issues behind legislation faster as the opposition’s delay tactics are minimized and, in time, will be far less than what we’ve had in the past.”
Public financing has also reduced the time legislators spend fundraising, increased the number of donors, and increased the time that legislators have with their constituents. Representative James Albis noted, “Most of my donations are between $5-$20. I hold one or two fundraisers and ask for anywhere between $5-$100 and try to get as many residents to come. I’m mostly concerned that I’m getting more donors, rather than greater donations.” Representative Jason Rojas added, “I get all my fundraising done early in the summer and then spend the rest of the time door knocking and talking to constituents, which is where I should be spending my time.”
In terms of the impact on the legislative process, since public financing was adopted, and the alignment of the governor and the legislature, Connecticut has passed several pieces of bold legislation that are in line with the public’s preferences and that help working- and middle-class communities. The state passed a paid sick days requirement, adopted an earned income tax credit, raised the minimum wage, and approved in-state tuition for undocumented students.
Perhaps the clearest example of the benefits of removing big special interests from the electoral process is the bottle deposit bill. For 30 years advocates tried to stop unclaimed bottle deposits from being returned to beer and soda distributors but failed every time. The first year after public financing was adopted, the legislature voted to return unclaimed bottle deposits to the state, providing up to $24 million per year that can be used for state conservation efforts and other public programs.
As the report shows, public financing is a fundamental first step toward a political system that is more responsive to constituents’ needs and more representative of the general public. New York should follow Connecticut’s lead and take the first step to making its electoral process more fair and open to the average New Yorker by adopting a strong public financing system.
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