Thursday, September 09, 2010

Election Reform's One Armed Bandit

Greg David has an incisive look at the folly of election reform in NYC-and how the deck is stacked against any and all businesses: "Last week, with so many people away, the city's Campaign Finance Board issued a self-congratulatory report trumpeting how changes to the city's campaign finance laws had empowered small donors and further eroded business participation in elections. Left completely unaddressed were the consequences of eliminating business contributions from city politics and what role unions might be playing."

Now, as most folks know who read this blog, we have a number of close labor allies. But that doesn't take away from the fact that a reform that empowers one interest while restraining another, is not reform-no matter how hard the foolish mayor and his muñeca across the hall trumpet this Potemkin Village: "The revisions prohibited giving by limited liability corporations and sharply limited contributions from companies doing business with the city. As a result, donations from such businesses fell to only 4% of the total, down from 22% before the law. Is it any wonder the City Council has become more receptive to issues like living wage, paid sick leave and other measures most businesses find hostile?"

As a result, the normal disadvantages of small business are magnified by these restrictions-and the council's progressives promoting the aforementioned policies pay little heed to their impact on the 190,000 businesses that drive the city's neighborhood economies. So while David rightly puts his finger on the inequities in the current law, he forgets that the big real estate companies-and the law firms that service them-are receptacles for term limited pols and have a real political influence; at least in the city's land use process.

So when it comes to some of the big development fights-like Flushing Commons and Willets Point-the small businesses that are threatened have a difficult time gaining traction at the city council. And, of course, the preservation of existing jobs isn't as alluring as having new jobs that can be used as an employment service for political allies.

But we digress. Greg Davis's point about the out sized role of labor has some real repercussions-especially since the public sector unions can not only contribute, they can mobilize their members as well: "The report also fails to consider that the lower campaign limits were not applied to unions, even those who represent city workers. I think we call this stacking the deck. Not only can unions contribute more, no one raises an eyebrow when unions mobilize their members to work in political campaigns. Just imagine the outrage if a CEO of a major New York company did the same."

As Gotham Gazette points out: "According to the Campaign Finance Board, the top five contributors to City Council candidates in the last citywide election in 2005 were unions or union affiliated political action committees. Some critics said if government contractors are included in campaign contribution limitations, unions should be too. "Clearly there is an 800-pound gorilla in the room," Oddo said of union's exclusion in the bill. "(The bill) is under inclusive, and it doesn’t address all the incarnations of influence and perceived influence garnered by money," he added."

But then GG really dramatizes David's point: "Others said in retrospect, unions should have been included in the legislation but doing so could have killed the measure. "They could have never gotten the council to give them support," Felder said if unions had been included. "It was very personal."

Exacerbating this built in inequity is the fact the city's good government groups are themselves generally hostile to business-a fact demonstrated by their response to the so-called reform:

"But others said the legislation remains notable not for what has been left out, but for what has been included. Several government watchdog organizations, including Citizens Union, Common Cause/NY and the New York Public Interest Research Group have hailed the legislation and used it to contrast the tight rules on campaign finance in New York City with the lax rules for state elections in New York.

"We commend the city for advancing these forward-thinking reforms," said Megan Quattlebaum, associate director of Common Cause/NY. "Now, it's time for citizens to demand that lawmakers in Albany get out from under their shroud of winter darkness and follow in New York City's footsteps by drastically overhauling what remain some of the worst campaign finance laws in the nation."

All of which leads-because of the absence of healing antibodies-to a natural brake on any governmental reform that reduces the size and scope of government-the real cause of so much small business tsuris. So without any real countervailing political power, local government, like Topsy, continues to grow-a fact that David, in his need to absolve the mayor's sins, doesn't address: "In the meantime, most business people fail to see the threat because they believe Mayor Michael Bloomberg is mostly on their side. That's pretty much a good assumption, but whether future mayors will be as protective of their interests remains to be seen."

To us, the nine Bloomberg years have been a period of wasted opportunities-precisely because of the way in which the mayor constantly channels his inner John Lindsay. Bloomberg, a small man with a long monetary reach, mostly aggrandized the public sector when he could have been a true governmental reformer. The fact that he heralded the election reform measure that is more like a one arm bandit, only underscores his politically congenital deficiencies-something that does, however, lend prescience to David's concern about his successor.