Mayor Bloomberg has been highly critical of a proposal to provide more generous public campaign funds when candidates face wealthy self-funded opponents like, well, Mayor Bloomberg.
Giving candidates more public funds is controversial, especially in tough fiscal times. But it's the right thing to do and could actually save taxpayers money.
Why has the city's respected Campaign Finance Board made this recommendation? The answer lies in the last race for mayor and in the history of the city's landmark campaign finance law, which was passed in 1988 to curb the power of wealthy interests.
Under the program, candidates agree to limit their overall spending and contributions. In exchange, they receive public matching funds at a rate of $4 for every $1 of contributions from city residents, up to a $250 contribution. That encourages candidates to seek a broad base of support; corporate contributions are barred.
In 2001, Bloomberg spent $73 million of his own money in the general election. That was five times the amount spent by opponent Mark Green, who had voluntarily agreed to limit his contributions to $4,500. The city campaign finance law has provisions to help candidates facing high-spending opponents. But the bottom line for Green was that these bonuses yielded only an added $765,000.
At postelection hearings, many urged a better response to wealthy self-funded candidates. A failure to act, they said, would risk candidates abandoning the program in the future, as is happening in the presidential public funding system this year.
The Campaign Finance Board has proposed a multitiered response. Candidates would receive a six-to-one match when a self-funded opponent spent more than 150% of the spending ceiling. The match could go as high as eight to one in the face of even greater spending by self-funded candidates, with a cap of $8.6 million.
Despite the new match, the proposal could benefit taxpayers. It would allow self-funded candidates to limit spending without taking public funds. If Bloomberg did this, it would save the taxpayers millions, since no bonus funds would have to a paid to anyone.
The legislation also would greatly reduce the amount of public funds that candidates could take when facing a token opponent. And it would toughen prohibitions on officials using city resources in election years, such as mass mailings of newsletters.
For more than 15 years, the city's campaign finance program has reduced the influence of special interests, enabled New Yorkers of modest means to run for office and promoted more competitive elections.
Let's continue this track record by passing the Campaign Finance Board's well-thought-out proposal.
Russianoff is senior attorney for the
New York Public Interest Research Group.
Originally published on December 9, 2003