ALBANY — Will taxpayers end up financing elections in New York? Will public financing take “big money” out of politics? Or will it actually empower shadowy special-interest groups that already operate with little oversight and spend large sums to influence elections?
New Yorkers won’t get those answers from their elected officials, at least not immediately. First, they will have to wait for the recommendations of a campaign-finance commission created this year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators when they couldn’t make a decision on public financing themselves.
Here are some key things to know about the commission and the political lay of the land:
Q: Who is pushing for public campaign financing?
A: A new group of progressives, primarily. A variety of good-government watchdog groups, Democratic elected officials and former Democratic candidates have called for it for years, but the idea floundered. The new drive gained momentum after the 2018 statewide campaigns, when Cuomo challenger Cynthia Nixon and a host of legislative candidates pushed mainstream Democrats to the political left on a number of issues and Democrats took control of the State Senate. Young Democrats in the State Legislature are among the most vocal in demanding the change.
Q: The issue has been talked about for a while, so what’s the difference this year?
A: Lawmakers authorized a commission to produce recommendations and submit them to the Legislature.
Q: Isn’t that “punting” on the issue?
A: Sure, but it’s more than officials ever have done in the past — and the commission’s opinions could become law. They will, in fact, unless lawmakers pass legislation blocking or changing the recommendations by Dec. 22.
Q: Who will be on the commission, and what will they be required to do?
A: There will be nine members: two appointments each for Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers); one each for Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) and Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport); and one “consensus” member named jointly by Cuomo, Heastie and Stewart-Cousins.
The commission must hold at least one public hearing, but can have more, according to the enabling legislation. The panel must present recommendations to the Legislature by Dec. 1. As noted, the Legislature has until Dec. 22 to block or change the recommendations — signaling lawmakers likely will return to Albany sometime that month. Any changes could be effective for the 2020 elections.
Take note: Heastie has said he isn't sure a majority of the overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly supports public financing. So there is the possibility legislators will act to change or block the panel's recommendations.
Q: Is that it?
A: No, the panel also could take on “fusion voting.” More on that later.
Q: Will public financing be based on New York City's system of campaign financing?
A: Some would like it to be. The city's public financing system gives candidates $6 in taxpayer money for every $1 they raise. The new commission would determine contribution matching ratios and limits.
Q: What are the leading arguments for and against public financing?
A: Proponents say it would help give candidates who either aren’t part of a party apparatus or friendly with big donors a fighting chance and make elections more competitive. They note New York’s current laws allow for sky-high contributions — a maximum of $65,000 from an individual donor to a gubernatorial candidate — compared with the $2,700 limit in federal elections. This means big-money interests — think real estate, unions, developers and health care groups — have few spending limits, in practical terms.
Critics say tax money shouldn’t go to campaigns. They point to the Malcolm Smith scandal, in which the former Democratic state senator from Queens was caught in a bribery scheme as he tried to get into the New York City mayoral race as a Republican so he could tap matching funds.
But perhaps the opponents' key argument is public money won’t dent the influence of “independent expenditure” groups. Deep-pocketed interests can form committees that are not technically affiliated with particular candidates but can spend large amounts of money to influence the outcome of an election. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has all but removed limits on these groups. So if you adopt public financing and limit candidates' fundraising ability while not being able to limit "independent expenditure" groups, you wind up making the latter more powerful, opponents say.
Q: How much could public financing cost?
A: Estimates are all over the board, because it would depend on candidate participation. The cost could be anywhere from $60 million to more than $100 million a year, lawmakers have estimated.
Q: Back to fusion voting. What is it and why might it be changed?
A: Fusion voting is the oft-criticized system in which candidates can appear multiple times on the ballot with multiple party endorsements. In 2018, for example, Cuomo appeared on the ballot lines of the Democratic, Working Families, Women’s Equality and Independence parties. New York is one of just three states that allow this.
Minor party officials say multiple ballot lines offer voters choices to express their values. Critics say the minor parties sponge on Republicans and Democrats for financial support and patronage positions in state and local government. Also, minor party endorsements can push mainstream candidates to adopt more extreme positions, critics say.
Q: How does the public view public financing?
A: A recently released Siena College poll found 63 percent of voters surveyed said they opposed the idea of using public funds on campaigns. Just 23 percent approved. “The public campaign finance scheme in the budget gets a strong thumbs down from the voters,” Siena said.