Battle Rages Whether to Publicly Fund Campaigns


The biggest underdog of last fall’s New York state Senate elections was a farmer and school board member, who beat a wealthy, veteran politician in a district drawn by his party specifically to get him re-elected. Now, she is driving a movement designed to give candidates a shot at winning no matter how much money they have, through the public financing of campaigns.

Cecilia Tkaczyk, now a Democratic senator, is spearheading of an effort nationwide to enact voluntary public financing of state-level campaigns, which was a big part of her platform to get elected.

“We have to change how we elect people to office,” Tkaczyk said. “…When you change how you elect people, you will have people representing the voters more, who care what the voter thinks, rather than chasing dollars to fill their campaign coffers.”

But where backers see public financing as a knife into influence-peddling and corruption, opponents see a tax.

“It would cost taxpayers more than $200 million,” said Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, who could block the bill from a vote. “That’s money that would be much better spent on property tax relief or investing more money in rural upstate school districts and underperforming school districts around the state.”

Supporters of the idea want to use public funds to match even small campaign contributions, limit big donations and restrict how funds are spent. For example, a donation up to $175 could be matched 6 to 1, giving a candidate $1,225. A $40 donation from a private citizen, a rare small donation in most elections these days, turns into $280 for the candidate.

Advocates see it as a critical alternative to campaigns dominated by wealthy special interests. In New York, the fall legislative elections cost $105 million to fill 212 seats.

“We need a system that’s one person, one vote — not one dollar, one vote,” said Dan Cantor of the state’s Working Families Party.

No conclusive study shows that giving money to people to run for office attracts strong candidates, increases voter turnout, makes races more competitive or reduces the influence of big donors, said political science professor David Primo of the University of Rochester.

He said the aim to increase the number of small donors will probably be accomplished, but, he asked, “does that goal justify the use of scarce public funds?”

The wild card is Cuomo. He resurrected the issue during his State of the State speech in January. Still, he would only say he was “cautiously optimistic” of passage.