ICYMI: SUFFOLK EXEC BELLONE/LERNER OP-ED: EQUIP CITIZENS WITH TOOLS TO FULLY ENGAGE WITH DEMOCRACY
The Times Union published an op-ed today by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause NY urging local governments across the state to lead the way by enacting their own campaign finance reforms and ethics measures.
The text of the op-ed is available below and can be viewed online here.
By Steve Bellone and Susan Lerner
Our legislators may have passed a $168 billion state budget, but their work is far from done. Once again, Albany failed to pass meaningful reforms to election laws or enact ethics measures that would finally address New York's corruption cavalcade.
The slow and steady erosion of public trust over the years has left more people feeling disenfranchised by an electoral process that rewards political insiders and special interests over the people. Every new arrest or indictment leveled at a public official further compromises the integrity of our civic institutions.
There are countless examples. In October, federal corruption charges were brought against former Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota for allegedly covering up a crime committed by the former chief of police, who now sits in federal prison. Yet in his last election, Spota ran unopposed, benefiting from a cross-party endorsement process engineered by local party bosses, robbing the voters of a choice at the ballot box.
In neighboring Nassau County, there are several ongoing federal corruption trials involving former state and local officials. The specifics of each case may slightly differ, but allegations of bribes, kickbacks, and other acts of misconduct paint a troubling picture among some of the county's highest-ranking public officials.
The two central ingredients that make up this corrosive culture are money and politics, affecting every political party and level of government, costing taxpayers millions in waste and abuse. Our current campaign finance system allows these acts of self-entitlement to occur while giving the wealthiest and most powerful outsized influence.
As a result, voters feel ignored and express their disgust by staying home on Election Day. In the 2016 general election, just over 57 percent of all eligible voters showed up in New York, putting the state 41st in the nation for turnout.
We need to take action. Reforming our voter laws would be a good start. Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to introduce early voting in New York — shelved by the Legislature this past week — should still be adopted.
Restoring public trust demands more however. We must pass real campaign finance reform. But let's be honest: Albany is not likely to pass this anytime soon.
Special interests and party bosses have a vested interest in the status quo. It's up to local governments across the state to take unilateral action.
Suffolk County recently met this challenge by adopting one of the nation's most comprehensive campaign finance reform packages. In doing so, Suffolk became the largest county in the state outside of New York City to establish public financing of elections, empowering ordinary citizens to run competitively for public office.
Suffolk's law is modeled after New York City's successful system. For example, a candidate who runs for county legislator and receives at least $5,000 in contributions of $250 or less will be eligible to participate in a 4-to-1 public matching system. This will even the playing field so that candidates without connections to deep pockets and special interests have a fair shot. And as elections become more competitive, voter participation will increase.
The Suffolk law also creates a new campaign finance board to provide oversight and ensure compliance. And, importantly, the bill creates common sense limits on what candidates can spend publicly matched funds on, prohibiting gray-area expenditures like clothing, haircuts and mortgages.
Other cities and municipalities across the country have implemented their own versions of campaign finance systems, including Los Angeles, Austin, Tucson, Boulder and Portland.
It is time for other local governments in New York to follow suit and lead the way on reform. We simply cannot wait for Albany. Restoring the public's trust can be done from the ground up by providing ordinary citizens with the tools and resources they need to be a bigger part of their democracy.
Steve Bellone is the Suffolk County executive. Susan Lerner is executive director of Common Cause NY.