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Suffolk Legislature OKs public financing of county campaigns

The program will allow legislative candidates to receive up to $50,000 in public money starting with the 2021 election.

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

The Suffolk County Legislature approved Tuesday night a public campaign financing program for county races starting in 2021, as advocates argued the bill would increase competitive elections and decrease reliance on big money donors.

Lawmakers passed the bill 11 to 7. All six Republicans and Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) voted against it. Krupski argued that the money to pay for it — from Suffolk’s share of profits from a newly opened casino — should go to balance the county’s severe budget shortfall instead.

Bill sponsor Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), the deputy presiding officer, said the bill would help restore voters confidence in county government by matching small donations with public funds and capping overall donations. “To me this is about opening up the political process to more people and refocusing candidates’ energy on the voters,” he said.

Modeled on New York City’s public financing law, the bill will 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 in a candidate’s district. 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 bill now will go to County Executive Steve Bellone. Bellone plans to sign the bill, Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman said.

The money would come from the county’s share of earnings from Jake’s 58, the Suffolk Off-Track Betting casino that opened this year. Suffolk voters in the 1990s approved another campaign finance program, but its funding source was voluntary donations on property tax bills, which never materialized.

Opponents said the bill would be ineffective at reducing the influence of wealthy donors from county races, because large donations can still go to political parties or independent expenditure committees.

“It’s a fraud on the public,” Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Solanga) said, noting that bills he had proposed to limit contributions to $2,000 in countywide races and prevent lawmakers from voting on contracts if they receive union donations had failed in the legislature.

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said the county legislative districts are small enough that even without much money, those with deep roots can win.

“The simple truth is that while this might be appropriate and necessary at other levels of government, it’s just not necessary here. Candidates, people of modest means can run for office and be successful,” Cilmi said.

Other lawmakers said voters distrust government officials. Legis. Lou D’Amaro (D-North Babylon) said those who wanted to “drain the swamp” should support this bill, because it gives challengers more of a chance to unseat incumbents.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said if you walked down the street and talked to voters, “90 percent of people say we’re all corrupt. We’re all corrupt and in the pocket of big money. This addresses that.”

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

Lisa Tyson, director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, said, “This small donor matching program makes elected officials less indebted to a narrow set of funders.”

Susan Lerner, executive director, of Common Cause New York, said she believed Suffolk’s efforts will spread. “I’m hoping it’s the beginning of an admirable domino effect in New York.”

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