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Suffolk committee OKs bill on public financing of campaigns

The money would come from the county’s share of revenue from the Suffolk Off-Track Betting casino.

Suffolk legislator Rob Calarco, speaks at the Suffolk

Suffolk legislator Rob Calarco, speaks at the Suffolk County legislature in Smithtown on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk would be the first New York county with public financing of campaigns under a bill that passed a legislative committee on Tuesday.

Modeled on New York City’s public financing law, the bill would allow legislative candidates to receive up to $50,000 in public money starting with the 2021 election. It would achieve that by providing a 4-to-1 public match to individual contributions of $250 or less from residents of the district a candidate is running in.

An individual contribution to a legislator would be capped at $1,500. Current contributions are limited to between about $1,600 and $3,000 depending on a legislative district’s voting population.

Starting in the 2023 election, county executive candidates could qualify for up to $1 million in public money. An individual contribution to a county executive candidate would be capped at $25,000, about $20,000 less than the current limit.

If candidates choose to accept public financing, total spending by a candidate would be capped at $100,000 for legislative races and $2 million for county executive races. The matching funds wouldn’t be eligible for any other countywide seat.

The money would come from a portion of the county’s share of revenue from the Suffolk Off-Track Betting casino that opened this year.

The bill, sponsored by Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), the deputy majority leader, would be up for a final vote Tuesday in front of the full Legislature.

Five Democrats voted for the bill, two Republicans voted against it and Legis. Kate Browning (D-Shirley) abstained.

Calarco said it would reward candidates who can raise small-dollar donations from many constituents and help restore voter trust in government.“This is an opportunity for us to inject some real competition into our elections,” he said.

Republicans opposed the bill.

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said he had philosophical problems with the bill, on top of the fact that the county is facing large budget deficits.

“I just don’t agree with public financing of campaigns. Forcing folks to fund campaigns of people they don’t agree with, I just don’t think it’s right.”

Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said the bill would be ineffective at removing money’s influence from politics.

“It’s a feel-good bill that does nothing,” he said. His own bill to cap contributions to countywide office holders at $2,000 has failed to pass the legislature, but he said he planned to introduce it again.

Browning abstained from the vote because of concerns about using gambling money, which otherwise could be used to fill a budget hole, and said it should be put up for a referendum.

The bill was supported by the Long Island Progressive Coalition, the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County and Common Cause New York.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said local governments throughout the country are looking at ways to restore voters’ faith in government.

“People are realizing they can’t wait for solutions from the federal level, and Suffolk is really being a leader here,” she said Thursday at a news conference in support of the bill.

Cilmi and Trotta also noted that the money could be used in the general fund to offset the county’s large budget deficit.

Calarco said county law cannot regulate third-party spending by political parties or outside political action committees.

Candidates for county legislature would have to get at least $5,000 in donations of $250 or less to receive matching funds. County Executive candidates would have to raise at least $25,000 from contributions of $250 or less.

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