Saturday, June 30, 2007

"Public Forums" on Campaign Finance Reform

On Wednesday, I attended the first of a set of "public forums" on campaign finance reform that the Senate committee on elections is hosting around the state.

"Public forums" is in quotes, because although the public is invited to attend, they're not invited to speak. Instead, the committee is bringing in expert speakers to discuss on various issues about campaign finance reform.

The one on Wednesday was about campaign finance reform and the First Amendment. Senator Joe Bruno keeps repeating the mantra that campaign finance laws violate the First Amendment. It was no surprise, then, that two of the three panelists held Senator Bruno's view.

John Staple of the CATO Institute and James Bopp, Jr. of the James Madison center for free speech (or something like that) both argued that campaign finance laws violate the first amendment. Staple argued that the First Amendment is violated because it forces candidates with less money to have to work harder to raise money in order to buy air time and campaign. Candidates with more money (either their own or those with wealthy networks) do not have to work so hard and can get their message out easier.

The one voice in support of campaign finance reform was the League of Women Voter's of New York State's Barbara Bartoletti, who argued that the reform legislation being proposed in New York state does not raise any questions or concerns about violating the First Amendment, since much of the legislation is about closing loopholes, requiring more transparency and reporting of donations, and limiting hard money amounts, but not to the strict levels established at the federal level.

I agree with Bartoletti that the legislation being proposed for New York state does not raise First Amendment concerns for the reasons she stated. In addition, it's worth noting that in Buckley V. Valeo, the Supreme Court clearly ruled that limits on amount of money an individual gives to a candidate *can* be restricted. What cannot be restricted is how much money a candidate can spend (unless they take public money to finance their campaign).

Stamp and Bopp both also argued that the Wisconsin Right to Life decision that was decided just last week by the Supreme Court indicates that campaign finance violates the First Amendment. The Court ruled that issue ads cannot be restricted from airing unless they clearly are involved in electioneering. The ruling likely will end the element of the McCain/Feingold campaign finance law that restricts issue ads from airing the last 60 days of an election if they urge viewers to contact the candidate running for re-election.

I agree with Stamp and Bopp that the Supreme Court ruled on First Amendment grounds in the Wisconsin case, but again, there is nothing being proposed for New York that bans issue ads or issue advocacy in the days leading up to an election. So, as Bartoletti said, First Amendment concerns are irrelevant.

The one part of the discussion that I found incredibly aggravating were claims made by Stamp and Bopp that public opinion basically is neutral on campaign finance reform. This echos Bruno's claim that no one gives a flying f*** about campaign finance reform in New York state. I don't disagree that if you ask New Yorkers what the most important issues facing the state are, campaign finance is not likely to make the top 10 (although I'd bet that issue of "reform in Albany" would rank somewhere). But, I don't think that matters.

I care a great deal about public opinion, and I think that public opinion can and should matter at times. But, some issues are complex, arcane, and do not directly affect voters. As a result, they don't rate highly on voters' lists of problems -- but that doesn't mean they aren't problems that need solutions.

To my mind, New York state has one of the most back-assward's processes for governance in the country. And without question the obscene amounts of money that candidates can raise with little oversight or reporting is one of many elements of governance that need reform.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mike Bloomberg and Ross Perot

Yesterday New York city Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he is switching his party from Republican to independent. The pundit circles are abuzz that this signals he is running for president as an independent in 2008.

Journalists have been noting in their reporting that independent candidates do not fair well in the United States. Ralph Nader, running on the Green ticket in 2000, did not get 5% of the vote. Ross Perot, an overall more successful third party candidate, was unable to get any electoral votes in 1992, even though he had a strong, oh 18% popular approval going into the election (or so, my memory is a touch fuzzy on his support numbers).

I think the comparisons are unfair; that is, to lump all third party candidates and their campaigns together is inappropriate. Each third party candidate acquires a unique flavor, like different types of alcohol, and to mix them all together misses the subtleties and unique characteristics of each.

Take Perot for example. Journalists are comparing Perot and Bloomberg in part because they're both financially independent. Both are billionaires who could fund their campaigns. But the similarities really end there. Perot had never held elected office. He was a one issue candidate (remember those terrific easel demonstrations of the budget deficit?). He had really big ears.

And, he dropped out half way through the campaign. After coyly inviting people to get him on the ballot in all 50 states, which they did, in the early summer he dropped out, out of a fit of paranoia that he and his family were being targeted by the other campaigns in malicious ways. Then, in early fall he changed his mine and declared he was running.

The loss in momentum that occurred when he dropped out, coupled with the appearance of a somewhat paranoid mind led many supporters to back away from Perot, and it lost him potential supporters, too.

Bloomberg is an entirely different character. He's been mayor to the United State's largest city. He's managed it as a centrist. He is not a single issue candidate.

I predict that he will develop a following (and I *always* predict wrong, BTW), and that over the course of the next few months as he tours the country to see if his message is resonating, he'll find that it does. And then, the 2008 race will get even more interesting.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Paid Family Leave

As the federal government steps backward on family leave, New York state is attempting to move forward.

The Assembly and Senate are considering a bill that would provide a paid family leave for workers who give birth, adopt a child, or care for a sick family member. The paid leave could extend for 12 weeks and pay at most $170.00 per week. The plan would be paid for by a weekly 45 cent payroll tax on workers' wages.

Presently, workers may take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave to care for a new child or a sick relative under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, passed under the Clinton administration. The problem is that many workers don't take the leave, because they cannot afford to go without a pay check.

Although I think the legislation is a step in the right direction, I'm not sure $170.00 per week is going to be enough for many families to opt to take the leave. Workers in professional jobs I would suspect are going to be especially uninterested in such a small wage during leave, although something is better than nothing.

The Times Union yesterday predicted the legislation will pass. If it does, New York will have the most progressive family leave law in the country. Washington state and California both have paid family leave laws, but for shorter periods of leave (and higher worker compensation).

I continue to be amazed at how back-asswards this country is with regard to creating a culture in which people can balance work and family life. That New York's law might be the most progressive in the land speaks volume of how far we still have to go to allow men and women to be both workers and caregivers, rather than having to choose between them.