Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Public Funds Wasted
On Subsidized Races
Which Are Runaways.

By Henry J. Stern
September 15, 2009

Today’s primary election has not attracted all the attention that elections usually receive in New York City. That is because the Democratic mayoral primary is regarded as one-sided. It is possible that challenger Anthony Avella’s nominating petitions could have been challenged, but it was not in Comptroller Bill Thompson’s interest to do so, even if the challenge were successful.

That is because 1) it would be regarded as unfair by some people to throw an underdog challenger off the ballot, 2) a substantial victory will burnish Thompson’s credentials, the way a boxer builds up a record with a series of easy victories over local stiffs, 3) public dollars are available for both candidates to spend, even though no one views the contest as serious. In this case, Councilman Avella never reached the minimum threshold of donors necessary to receive public funds. Comptroller Thompson has received $1.6 million from CFB to spend in the one-sided primary. He will use it in the general election. He will still spend far less than Mayor Bloomberg, but he gets a bonus of $1.6 million he would not have received if Avella had not launched his quixotic candidacy.

When elections are actually competitive, and the outcome is in doubt, there is a role for public funding. It amplifies the resources available to candidates, and the spending limits reduce the advantage a richer candidate enjoys. When one candidate is wealthy, or chooses not to participate in the system, public financing gives his opponents a better opportunity to make their case. In fact, the taxpayers pay $8.57 for each dollar the candidate raises from contributions under $175. This is intended to enable the public to make a more informed choice. But where one candidate is expected to roll over a newcomer, or a narrowly based insurgent, there is no need to spend tax dollars to magnify a rout.

In the past, public funds have been used by sure losers to promote themselves or their private businesses or law practices. Or, worse yet, to employ their relatives to work in their campaigns on the taxpayer’s dime. Both winners and losers have found public finance a way to put campaign workers on salary who would otherwise be volunteers.

Technically, public funds cannot be used to hire relatives. They get around that by using funds they raised privately to pay their loved ones, and the public funds are then freed to use for other purposes. Sure winners have abused public financing, printing more literature than they can use, buying unnecessary advertising to get favorable treatment in the press, sending sound trucks around to blare their names to the neighborhood, sometimes at unseemly hours, on behalf of a politician who has been an incumbent for many years and is in no danger of defeat. In many cases, public funding is little more than a racket, with both sides operating to scam the city treasury. Nonetheless, in some races public funding can be a useful tool to educate the public about the candidates.

The problem in this area is how to tell which races are legitimate, and which are not. The Campaign Finance Board can, in rare cases, deny public financing to a candidate on the grounds that a race is not competitive. But there is a history of sure winners filing false affidavits to claim they are in close races. Their motive is simple: to indirectly pry funds from the Campaign Finance Board that they can spread around to their kith and kin (friends and relatives).

One suggestion would be to require incumbents seeking funding to post bonds with the CFB. If they win with more than a certain percentage, possibly two-thirds of the vote, the bond is seized, and the funds expended for that candidate are returned to the CFB. There should be written opinions by CFB as to what the chances are of a race being competitive. One could rely on margins in previous elections, the demographics of the community, and whether the seat is open or already occupied, among other criteria. The number of challengers, and their bases of support, may also be a factor. Bureaucrats are sometimes fearful of making these judgments, and might rather give away public funds than be criticized for making a decision that could be challenged in court.

As a person who has spent a lifetime in government, I am particularly interested in elections, because that is when the public decides who the government will be. In my mind, Election Day has a certain resemblance to Yom Kippur; it is a day of judgment, on which both incumbents and challengers are weighed on the scales of justice. The day also has a certain correlation with popular favor. Some candidates are pardoned until the next election, when they must again account for their sins and weaknesses. Some are punished, either ousted from public office or denied the opportunity to hold it. They can try again.

Although people at the bottom of the ticket tend to serve many terms based on public familiarity with their names, gerrymandering of their districts, and the preponderance of Democratic voters in almost all parts of the city, people at the top of the ticket, particularly the chief executive, are subject to voter boredom and discontent, grievances accumulated over the years, and the desire for change in the hope that new leadership will better the lives of those lower on the food chain.

So, just as every show on Broadway opens and closes, every mayor, governor or other elected officials gains power and, sooner or later, loses it.

Some leave dramatically, through forced resignation (Spitzer), or hasty departure for another country (Walker-France and O’Dwyer-Mexico, as Ambassador), some lose their bids for fourth terms (Koch, Cuomo), some lose their bids for second terms (Beame, Dinkins, Harriman), some yield to term limits (Giuliani), one was impeached (Governor Sulzer, in 1913, but he was much more honest than the Tammany crooks who removed him from office for not following their orders), two were elected President (FDR in 1932, Van Buren in 1836), three were elected Vice President (TR, in 1900; VanBuren in 1828 under Andrew Jackson of Tennessee; and Daniel D. Tompkins, eponym of Tompkins Square Park). One was later appointed Vice President (Rockefeller in 1974). Readers are specifically invited to send in further examples.

Ultimately, the Campaign Finance Board, itself a thriving bureaucracy that adds to the candidates costs as well as their receipts, is in need of thorough study. Just because the Board members and staff are honest, sincere and committed does not mean that all their policies are correct. We ask: How can political competition be stimulated and information spread without burdening everyone and enriching a greedy few? It is not an easy question to answer, but it requires serious attention.

StarQuest #594 09.15.2009 1131 wds

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