Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Senate Hearing in Rochester

ROCHESTER Our state's government operates behind closed doors in hushed halls where people focus on money. Committee meetings are as muted as a gray cat in the fog. At least, they were.

Senator Joseph Addabbo now chairs the Senate Committee on Elections and he opened his committee doors so wide that every citizen in New York can find a chair. Right now in New York money is the primary determinant of who is elected and what laws are passed. Bills in Addabbos’s committee may change that.

Addabbo has offered a series of hearings across the state, most recently at Nazareth College in Rochester where he found over 80 people and heard 27 presentations. Addabbo complimented attendees saying that this was the largest turnout the committee has experienced.

The room was filled with people fired up over a plan to revamp NY's system of funding political campaigns. For years citizens have been knocking on closed doors in Albany, shouting about the pay-to-play political system that serves special interests groups over constituents. Mario Cuomo proposed changes nearly 30 years ago only for things to get worse.

New York is recognized as having the most dysfunctional state government and that puts us low on a depressed stage. Lobbyists in Albany outnumber legislators. Hands that give out campaign cash come back after elections to lean heavily on the shoulders of legislators creating a system where money buys campaigns and campaigns pay up by passing tailored legislation.

Addabbo opened his committee to constituents for comments on several bills on electoral matters that have been long stewing in the legislative pot. He brought the discussion on the road breaking tradition with senatorial secrecy.

At the hearing people repeatedly called for Clean Money/Clean Elections, the long-running campaign for public financing of elections. Before you roll yours eyes over the use of public money understand that the states using public financing (Arizona and Maine) have seen the cost of running government decrease because legislators don’t seek funding from special interest groups; they don’t make thousands of calls for donations; they don’t duck out of legislative sessions to chase contributions. What they do is talk with constituents, define problems and work out solutions.

Most of the 80 people in Rochester were private citizens. One, Stewart Berger, asked that the laws create a program that is simple, comprehensive and fair.

Basically, proposals are that potential candidates would collect some number of token donations - $5 to $250 - from natural persons. (Natural persons are living, voting people rather than legal persons which are corporations. Corporations were granted personhood in an 1886 Supreme Court ruling.) When potential candidates collect the required number of donations, they qualify for public funding in an amount specified for that office. Larger districts would allot more money.

With donations coming only from natural persons, corporate influence would be reduced significantly.

Blair Horner, representing NYPIRG, presented Abbaddo with large written testimonial which he summed by stating that New York has inadequate disclosure laws and what laws exist are poorly enforced. Three things are needed. 1. Public financing for elections. 2. Lower contribution limits. 3. Aggressive enforcement of campaign contribution limits and an independent enforcement agency that is well staffed and funded.

Horner continued, “I’m optimistic this year. The Governor, Senate majority leader and the Assembly leader all say that it’s time for campaign finance reform. This creates a window of opportunity and it’s important to jump through that window.”

Nathan Jassic, from Binghamton, asked that NY break the link between money and elections. Jassic was echoed by Paula Hanser and Ed Scutt who spoke about the influence of money on recent bills and voter turnout. A Zogby poll indicated that 58% of New Yorkers feel that legislators listen to contributors and not constituents while voter studies show 80% of the states have better voter participation than NY.

Sam Fedele from Rochester said that there can be no progress on any issue until the problem of money is solved. “A business weighs each action on the value to its bottom line. A corporation is not moral or patriotic. When it makes a political donation, it wants a financial return.”

Thomas Ferrarese from the Monroe County Board of Elections spoke against changes saying that we should be proud of the system in New York State. He cited Help America Vote Act as a hastily written law that did not make elections safer or easier for voters. He suggested that NY increase penalties for abuse of campaign funds and institute a multi-tiered system so that those running for small, local offices would have less accounting and reporting demanded of them than those running for statewide offices.

Jon Greenbaum, representing Metro Justice of Rochester, made 4 requests. Candidates need enough funding to launch a reasonable campaign. They need extra rounds of funding to counter spending by wealthy candidates. He cited that the cost of elections in Arizona decreased significantly since extra round grants were added saying that wealthy candidates learned they can’t outspend the system. Greenbaum pressed for a donation limit of $100 but said that $250 might work. He asked that to qualify for public money people should have to do something serious, something difficult but not impossible for the ordinary person.

Senator Abbaddo asked Greenbaum to read the committee's proposal for bundling contributions and to give feedback on the measure.

Time and time again citizens brought up redistricting asking that it be based on population and not on the political party registration. There were also repeated complaints about out-of-district corporations pushing money into congressional races. People want that outside money out of their political lives. While it seems like a fairy tale to hope that NY could lessen the influence of money in politics, it might be possible this year.

If you care about the issue call Senator Young at 518-455-3563 or 1-800-707-0058. Put your voice behind keeping things as they are or ask her to support changes in campaign finance.

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