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Suffolk Legis. Rob Calarco pushes public campaign financing

Suffolk County Legis. Robert Calarco speaks during a

Suffolk County Legis. Robert Calarco speaks during a meeting of the Suffolk County Legislature in Hauppauge on Feb. 3, 2015. Credit: Ed Betz

Despite a looming $186 million budget shortfall, Deputy Presiding Officer Rob Calarco has proposed a November referendum to publicly finance legislative races with gambling revenues and double lawmakers two year terms to four.

Calcaro’s bill, which would take effect in 2019, would provide as much as $50,000 to $70,000 in public funding to legislative candidates who agree to limit individual contributions to no more than $1,000 and their overall spending to $100,000 or $150,000, depending on whether they have a primary.

Funding would come not from taxpayer money but from 20 percent of the county’s share of annual proceeds from the planned Suffolk Off-Track Betting Corp.’s video lottery terminal casino or $1 million, whichever is greater.

“The time is right in light of public demands that we do things to improve the political system in Albany and the national level,” said Calarco, “We have a unique opportunity to clean up the financing of local elections.”

Calarco estimated that public financing would cost about $1.8 million a year if all candidates sought funding. But he noted that some seats are uncontested and would not qualify for funding.

Calarco said lengthening lawmakers’ terms to four years would reduce the money needed for campaigns and give candidates more time to generate financial support among local residents. He said countywide elected offices such as county executive and district attorney could be added once the system is is up and running.

Legis. Kevin McCaffrey, GOP caucus leader, said voters won’t support the idea.

“We have a $186 million shortfall and this does nothing to help close the budget gap, “ he said. “Fundraising is the least favorite part of my job but my constituents don’t want to pay for my campaign,” which cost $100,000 last year.

Noting that Democrats in New York City imposed a public campaign finance system, McCaffrey said the Democratic legislative majority “has already rammed through things that have shocked me, but I’d not be surprised to see them fall in line.”

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory, said he favors public campaign financing in general, but has not fully reviewed Calarco’s bill. He cautioned with Suffolk’s fiscal problems, “an argument could be made that the money would be better used to reduce the deficit.”

Gregory added that most legislators are likely to back public campaign financing, but approving four year terms “may be dicey.”

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said, “Everyone understands the importance of limiting big money in campaigns maing them competitive and Rob has found a creative way to address the issue. This just gives voters a right to choose.”

Calarco said that while local police unions have become a dominant force in local campaigns, spending $2.8 million since 2011, his proposal is not aimed at them. Police unions have supported Calarco in the past.

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