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44th Street Notes


Mar 2002

Because we have a new census and the Legislature has to redistrict itself this year, there is a golden opportunity to enact meaningful campaign finance reform legislation at the state level. Explaining why this is the case requires a look at the redistricting process in Albany.

Traditionally the majority party in each house -- the Democrats in the Assembly and the Republicans in the Senate -- decide how to draw the lines for the districts from which their members are elected. By gerrymandering the lines on a highly political basis, the majority in each house is able to minimize the number of districts in which the opposing party can mount a viable challenge to one of their incumbents. As a result, no bill is more important to preserving the control of the majority in each house than the redistricting/reapportionment bill.

Overnight, Governor Pataki could end this tradition of allowing the Democrats to draw the lines in the Assembly and the Republicans to draw the lines in the Senate. All he would have to do is to announce that he would not sign the reapportionment bill unless it commanded bipartisan support in both houses. A bill that commanded such support would obviously not be one that unduly blocked minority party challenges.

If the Governor vetoed a traditional, partisan reapportionment bill, the Legislature would have great difficulty overriding the veto. In order to override the Governorˇ¦s veto by the necessary two-thirds vote in each house, the majority in each house would need votes from the minority. It would be hard to convince the minority to override the veto of a bill that had been carefully crafted to limit their political opportunity. If no bill were passed, the courts would appoint a special master to draw the new district lines.

While a Governor could in this way achieve an important reform, there would be a high cost of confrontation with the Legislature. As already noted, nothing is more important to the majority in each house than the issue of control and nothing is more important to the question of control than reapportionment.

Alternatively, the Governor could follow an approach that does not target such a vital legislative interest but still achieves significant reform that, like reapportionment reform, improves the accountability of government and the democratic process. He would link the issues of reapportionment and campaign finance reform and announce his willingness to sign a traditional, partisan reapportionment bill provided that it was accompanied by meaningful campaign finance reform.

In 1992, Governor Cuomo linked reform and reapportionment. He did not achieve campaign finance reform but did achieve significant improvement the Stateˇ¦s ballot access laws.

Reapportionment and campaign finance reform are substantively related. The two chief obstacles to holding elected officials accountable to the voters are gerrymandered legislative districts and the huge campaign fundraising advantage enjoyed by incumbents. Of the two, the fundraising advantage is far more corrupting because it arises from the ability of an incumbent to reward the large contributor with at least access to influence and at worst actual favoritism.

Governor Pataki has proposed credible finance reform legislation. He could reasonably take the position that passing his bill, or something very similar to it, is the price for his signing the traditional reapportionment bill with the lines drawn by the majorities in both houses. In doing this he would not be targeting the Legislature, as he would be were he to insist on a reapportionment bill with bipartisan support in each house. While the Governor is unaffected by reapportionment, campaign finance reform reduces his incumbency advantage at least as much as it reduces the incumbency advantage of the legislative majorities.

One possible drawback to this strategy is that it will tend to adoption of the campaign finance reform proposal favored by the Governor and the Governorˇ¦s proposal does not include a public financing component. The McCain Feingold campaign finance reform legislation adopted by the Senate and now pending in the House of Representatives does not have a public funding component yet it is widely viewed as positive step forward because it bans soft money and limits the flow of funds into campaigns. While public financing is a highly desirable reform, as the recent mayoral election in New York City shows, it is not a complete answer to the problem that under Supreme Court precedent the wealthy candidate has the constitutional right to spend his or her own money without limit. Far better than no real contribution limit (the situation that currently prevails in New York State) is a realistic and effective limit that is automatically multiplied when all candidates in a race do not agree to be bound by a voluntary expenditure limit that includes a limit on spending from their own funds.

In the wake of the Enron scandals, it is important that political leaders not posture about campaign finance reform. Speaker Silver has said that the Senate should pass the Governorˇ¦s bill and that in such an event he would personally lead a delegation form the Assembly into conference with the Senate delegation. This is a positive attitude. The Governor should not let this golden opportunity slip by and force us to wait until the next redistricting in 2012 when once again there will be real leverage for reform.

Evan Davis

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