Last week’s arrests of three local lawmakers shined a spotlight on the corrupting influence of money in New York politics, but to solve the problem and help root out corruption, many reformers say we need to look no further than New York City. NY1's Bobby Cuza filed the following report as the first installment in his series, "Smart Money: How Public Funding Is Changing City Elections".
It may seem hard to believe with a billionaire mayor who spent $108 million to win re-election last time out, but many observers say when it comes to local elections, New York City’s groundbreaking campaign finance program has curbed the influence of big money.
"The idea is that money doesn't decide elections in New York City. Voters do," said Eric Friedman of the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
The city's program places tight restrictions on anyone running for city office. For those running for mayor this year, contributions are capped at $4,950, or just $400 for those who do business with the city. The limit for statewide office is nearly $61,000.
What’s more, small donations are matched 6-to-1 with public money. For a candidate meeting certain minimum qualifications, the first $175 every constituent donates is multiplied six times over with taxpayer money. That means a $175 donation turns into $1,050 public dollars, or $1,225 total.
That creates an incentive to seek out small donations from everyday New Yorkers rather than wealthy interests seeking to buy influence.
"What we've seen happen is that you don't have our elected officials in the council being responsive, necessarily, to the big moneyed interests as much as to their constituents," said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union.
Participating candidates must agree to a spending cap, about $6.4 million in this year's mayoral primary, and must participate in debates. And while there’s no stopping a billionaire like Bloomberg from campaigning on his own dime, millions in public financing did help his last opponent, William Thompson, come within 5 points.
"All of that was important to allowing me to be as competitive and to come as close as I did," Thompson said.
So just how much does this all cost taxpayers? In 2009, the city disbursed about $27 million in matching funds, which supporters point out is a minuscule fraction of an overall city budget that now tops $70 billion.