At a time when talk of reforming New York politics is all the rage, the legal limit to donating to political parties has quietly broken the $100,000 ceiling.
The New York Public Interest Research Group's analysis of state election law shows New York is the first state with limits to hit $100,000 for one of the most common targets for political contributors. The law raises the limits by the rate of inflation after a statewide general election.
"As the limits go up, the reliance on big donors goes up," said NYPIRG's Blair Horner. "It's much more efficient to make one phone call for $100,000 than to make a hundred calls for $1,000 each."
He said NYPIRG's study of campaign contribution trends from 2000 to 2008 shows an increase in donations at or near the limit.
"The system is designed for elected officials to cater to the whim of the wealthy and powerful, and the wealthy and powerful don't always have the same priorities as average New Yorkers," Horner said.
NYPIRG and other good-government advocates have sought better campaign finance laws to limit the influence of money from special interests and individuals in politics. The practice is so common in Albany it has a term: "pay to play."
According to NYPIRG, donors can now legally give $102,300 to a political party. That's up over $8,000 from last year.
In a statewide general election, the maximum donation to a candidate is now $41,000. That's up more than $2,000.
The limit for an Assembly general election donation is now $4,100, up from $3,800. The limit for a Senate general election is now $10,300, up from $9,500, according to NYPIRG's calculations.
The new figures aren't yet official. The state Board of Elections hasn't calculated the increases. But its calculations will likely be similar and the board doesn't dispute them, said elections spokesman John Conklin.
He noted, however, that a lesser used limit was already set at over $100,000. In 2010, candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general or comptroller could have collected $270,413 from their families.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who also is calling for substantial overhaul of campaign finance laws, collected over $28 million in campaign donations.
Five states — Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Virginia — have no limits and Illinois recently established limits, according to NYPIRG's report.
"Someone who can contribute $100,000 has an army of lobbyists," Horner said. "That's what distorts Albany."