When it Comes to Campaign Finance Reform, It’s Time to Play Ball

Play Ball – no it’s not the start of the baseball season, that’s sadly still a few weeks away; it’s a different kind of game.  It’s a game of influence and perception at the heart of one of the more contentious issues in Albany, campaign finance reform.

It’s become increasingly clear that the staggering amounts of money in politics has distorted the electoral process, depressed voting and increased the power of special interest groups sometimes leading to the out-and-out corruption that has jaundiced the public’s view of their government.

But because of Citizens United and subsequent Supreme Court rulings, donating money, even incredibly large sums of it, as a means to express one’s views is protected by our Constitution.

Further, while there is no shortage of campaign donations, there is a decided shortage of voting. Record campaign spending has translated into record low turnout – with the last two major New York elections drawing abysmal voter participation rates.

The main thrust of the Democrat response to these issues is typical – spend more of someone else’s money. Most of their proposals involve taking taxpayer dollars and distributing them along the lines of the corrupt New York City (NYC) campaign finance model. The NYC system is a travesty which has been perverted into a tool for incumbents and cronyism. Worse, the board that administers the system is some kind of Star Chamber above the law and even routine media inquiries.

For their part, Republicans have been largely silent on this issue, holding their collective breath hoping that no one notices that they have no ideas, not even bad ones, to try to reshape the electoral playing field to foster more real competition. As fiscal conservatives they oppose more spending and as a minority party they fear the imposition of a NYC system that decidedly favors incumbents.

There is a solution that doesn’t require spending hundreds of millions in public funds and we need to look no further than the Bronx for inspiration. It’s time we placed a soft cap on campaign spending and get more voters in the game by establishing a refundable voter contribution tax credit. How would it work?

In 2003, in an effort to promote competitive balance and the overall health of the sport, Major League Baseball (MLB) instituted a soft cap on team spending.  It requires that when a team exceeds the cap a “luxury tax” or what the league calls a “Competitive Balance Tax” is levied on its payroll. The purpose of the luxury tax is to prevent teams with high incomes or wealthy owners from simply cornering the market on talented players and destroying the “competitive balance” of the league.

In MLB a team that exceeds the spending cap incurs a surcharge or a tax equal up to 50% for every dollar of payroll above the recommended level.  Those funds are redistributed for various league purposes including as support to other lower-income teams in an effort promote competitive balance.

A soft cap on statewide campaign spending can achieve the same result. Candidate campaigns, including the advocacy spending of outside groups, which cumulatively spend beyond established guidelines, would be subject to a luxury tax. Donors can still give as much as they want. Campaigns, like the teams, can still spend what they want, as much as they can raise, but at a price. Fifty cents of every dollar spent that exceeds the soft cap would be dedicated to enhanced enforcement and increasing voter turnout. Let’s face it; no one wants to fund someone else’s campaign – the effect of a soft cap on limiting deep pocketed donors and outside spending could be enormous.

To address abysmal voter participation, let us incentivize the behavior by establishing a $50 refundable tax credit for contributions to support the statewide candidates who best represent their interests on issues. The credit would benefit all New Yorkers and be available to statewide candidates up to the soft cap established for the race. It would encourage voter engagement in the democratic process which hopefully would extend beyond statewide elections.

Finally, to be effective this approach would require real-time disclosure of campaign donations and spending which is a critical reform whose time has come.

“Competitive balance” or a more even playing field – isn’t that the bottom of line what all New Yorkers want to see in our elections?

A more even playing field doesn’t guarantee winners and losers. The Yankees (aka incumbents, Democrats and self funders) will always have a better chance of winning. Just like the luxury tax doesn’t guarantee victory for the Mets (aka challengers and Republicans) – but it gets them in the game, and that is what voters deserve.

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