An Overbrook-Funded Event on Public Financing in New York State at the Brennan Center

Last fall, The Overbrook Foundation’s Board voted to award a grant to the Brennan Center for Justice to underwrite three events focusing on the issue of money in politics in 2011 and 2012. As a part of this series, the Brennan Center held a panel event on March 29th to examine “The Benefits of Public Financing for New York State”. Speakers at the event included Professor Michael Malbin, Executive Director of the Campaign Finance Institute; Dr. Hazel N. Dukes, President of the NAACP New York State Conference; Lisa Genn, attorney in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center; Michael J. Petro, Executive Vice President of the Committee for Economic Development, and Professor Zephyr Teachout of the Fordham University School of Law. The diverse backgrounds and organizational affiliation of these panelists allowed for an interesting discussion on how adopting public financing could create a more vibrant democracy for the benefit of a diverse array of communities ranging from businesses to minority communities to individual constituents. To view a video recording of the panel and a summary of the speakers’ comments, please click here.

At the beginning of the presentation, Professor Malbin explained the advantages, drawbacks, and impact of New York City’s current matching fund system, as well as how it could model for a new public financing system in New York State. In this system, contributions to candidates who opt into the public financing are matched 6:1 with public funds. Dr. Dukes presented a civil rights-based argument for public financing.She contended that a more racially and socio-economically diverse donor base can emerge under a public financing system because candidates will benefit from donations from their constituents as their gifts will be matched. Under the current system, elected officials often have to look outside of their districts or direct constituencies to have a competitive campaign if their constituents tend to belong to a lower socio-economic class. A changing donor base may change the messaging and positions of the candidates to better reflect their communities’ wishes. The speakers also argued that public financing would enhance diversity in the political process and create a more energized democracy. Studies have shown that those who have contributed to candidates often become active in many arenas of politics. From a business perspective, Mr. Petro explained that some business leaders and his organization of business leaders support public financing systems due to the belief that more competition in the public sphere, as in the private sphere, is better for the country and our government’s public policy decisions.

While many Americans have expressed frustration with money in politics and the associated implications of corruption, they are also cynical about the system ever being fixed. Several panelists agreed that other campaign finance reform efforts around the country are now looking to New York State as a potential model for policies that could be implemented elsewhere, if New York’s system proves successful. As a result, the Brennan Center and several of the organizations represented by these speakers take part in campaigns to promote this critical policy change.

Additionally, panelists drew a connection between the reform/adoption of public financing systems and the influx of money from outside groups (ie: Super PACs) in recent campaigns. They recognized that public financing alone will not prevent outside spending. However, the messaging used and the audiences targeted in campaigns would theoretically change to allow for stronger, more engaged constituents’ voices that could better offset SuperPAC messaging during the election than the current level of influence of non-wealthy individuals.

To learn more about this event, please click here for a summary or links to video recordings of the panel. Our staff has found this presentation to be quite relevant in light of the current campaign cycle and the importance of money in politics to the American political process. The Foundation is pleased to support these quality discussions of pressing issues for our democracy and we hope you have time to hear these arguments as well.