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Public finance panel urged to provide more money in low-income districts

A panel empowered to implement a system to subsidize political races with $100 million in state funds was urged to provide a greater share of public money to campaigns in low-income districts during the panel’s first public hearing on Tuesday in Manhattan.

The Public Finance Reform Commission prefaced the first of four statewide public hearings on Tuesday with testimony from invited experts on campaign finance reform. Most of the professors, researchers and good-government advocates agreed the system should provide about $6 in state money for every $1 donated to a candidate in small, individual contributions subject to random audits and restrictions on spending.

One commission member, state Democratic Committee Chairman Jay Jacobs of Nassau County, suggested that qualified candidates in poor districts who join the system could receive perhaps a 12:1 match of state funds.

Matching funds is not the only model the commission could choose. Some of the 14 others states and a dozen municipalities, including New York City, that already have public financing of campaigns provide straight grants to candidates or allow voters to direct public money to candidates through a voucher system, the experts said.

The experts urged the commission to reduce public funding for “sure winners,” who could be incumbents facing minimal opposition. Some members of the Public Finance Reform Commission also sought ways to keep a donor from gaming the system by preventing him or her from initially making a small contribution that is matched by public funds and then giving the same candidate much larger contributions at a later date.

Other ideas that gained some traction among the experts and some commissioners was to provide a more generous match of state funding to candidates in higher cost areas such as on Long Island, with less to upstate areas. Additional recommendations would limit the size of incumbents’ “war chests” of surplus contributions built up over several campaigns which can scare away challengers. Other ideas being considered include banning contributions by lobbyists and companies that do business with the state.

An objection was raised by the two Republican appointees who were appointed by Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua). They complained the Democrats on the commission aren’t also considering a ban on contributions from labor unions, many of which are major donors to Democrats.

The commission was charged April 1 by the Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to create a voluntary system for public financing of campaigns as an antidote to the current system. Good-government groups agree the current system is deeply flawed and the root of several corruption scandals. The commission is expected to reduce the nation’s highest campaign donation limits; make it easier for more people to run for office by reducing the time spent raising donations; and provide incentives for small donations from individuals to counter the longtime influence of big-money special interests on spending and policy decisions made by state government.

“The biggest scandals in New York … are the legal ones,” said Chisun Lee, senior counsel of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

The commission’s plan is due Dec. 1, and will become law if the Legislature doesn’t return to Albany to reject or amend it.

The experts stressed the need for the commissioners appointed by Cuomo and legislative leaders to create an independent enforcement agency. Recommendations included allowing top judges to also appoint members.

“The agency must be fully independent,” said Michael Malbin, political science professor at the University at Albany and director of the Campaign Finance Institute. “Its budget must be free from punitive retaliation. It should have protected status. It needs that protection because its job is to implement the law fairly, energetically.”

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