ALBANY -- Individual donors now have carte blanche from New York State to contribute more than $150,000 a year to fund as many candidates and political groups as they choose, just in time for this year's high-stakes statewide elections.
The state Board of Elections has voted unanimously that the state's $150,000 limit on campaign donations by individuals will no longer be enforced, board spokesman Thomas Connolly said. That means individuals can contribute to as many races, political parties or advocacy groups as they wish.
Their contributions would be restricted only by how much a politician, party or group can receive under various limits set in election law. For example, a statewide candidate can accept no more than $41,100 from a single donor.
The decision could provide a way for wealthy individuals to have greater impact in races such as this year's fight for majority control of the State Senate. The Senate is narrowly controlled by a coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats, and a few races will decide majority control in the 63-seat chamber for the next two years.
State limits 'unenforceable'
The Board of Elections in a closed-door session concluded the state cap is "unenforceable," said board spokesman John Conklin. The board Thursday decided the state's limit can't be enforced after federal court decisions following the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed corporations and other interests a freer hand in political spending.
The conservative Center for Competitive Politics, based in Washington, called the state board's decision "a victory for the First Amendment rights of New York's residents."
"I'm sure there will be more influence by some people, but basically it gives challengers a better chance of mounting a campaign because most of the campaign finance restrictions that limit donations benefit incumbents," said David Keating, the group's president.
In New York, billionaires such as George Soros have given heavily to liberal Democratic campaigns, while others, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and developer Donald Trump are among the biggest donors to the State Senate Republicans.
Good-government advocates say the state Board of Elections decision could erode a system they insist is already broken.
"It's yet another hurdle that will make fixing New York's campaign finance system more difficult," said Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "There are so many loopholes in the current system that nobody who wants to give more than the supposed aggregate limit has ever had a tough time figuring out how to get around it."
Such loopholes include treating every company created under a separate name by the same owner as a separate political donor, effectively multiplying the contribution limit for the business owner. There is also no limit on contributions to loosely regulated "housekeeping accounts," which result in six- and seven-figure donations originally intended for operating expenses. But under law, housekeeping donations can be used as the party sees fit.
For example, James Simons of Setauket, the hedge fund investor, legally contributed $1 million last year to the state Democratic Committee housekeeping account.
Seeing it from both sides
The 170 biggest donors in the state each contributed more than $50,000 in 2013, according to a NYPIRG analysis. Those donors contributed $5.2 million to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's re-election campaign, $1.3 million to Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman's campaign and $718,969 to Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's campaign.
Bill Samuels of the good-government group Effective NY has seen both sides.
In 2010, he was instrumental in defeating Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. (D-Bronx), who had orchestrated a gridlocking Senate coup a year before as he extracted lucrative leadership posts from Republicans and Democrats. Espada is now in prison on an unrelated corruption conviction.
In that campaign, Samuels contributed more than $250,000 through his several companies to Espada's opponent, Gustavo Rivera. Now Samuels is among the state's most ardent activists for campaign finance reform to reduce the role of big money donors.
"I did what I think people shouldn't do," Samuels said in an interview. "I would say. 'I did it, I'm proud of what we did, I took out a corrupt Democrat.' Is it something that I'm in favor of in general? No, I wish it wasn't legal. For me, it was a 50-50 decision and I decided getting rid of Espada was worth it."