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Campaign panel weighs bigger public match for local donations

ALBANY — The commission charged with implementing the public funding of political campaigns on Tuesday moved away from a straight 6:1 match of state funds to all donations toward an idea proposed by an Uber driver that would provide a far greater match to donations from within a candidate’s legislative district.

The commission voted on Tuesday to analyze a 20:1 match for donations made by constituents from within the legislative district the candidate seeks to represent, and no match for donations from outside the district. The concept would apply only to state legislative races, not statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller or attorney general.

The idea, which experts said hasn’t been used on a broad scale nationwide, was raised during Tuesday’s public hearing in Smithtown.

“We can set a new course and be creative, as long as we meet our objectives,” said Commissioner Jay Jacobs, the state Democratic Committee chairman appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The objectives of the voluntary $100 million public campaign finance system include encouraging more small donations to limit the influence of big-money donors and to make elected officials more beholden to their constituents. The commission is tasked with finding a way to implement the system approved by Cuomo and the Legislature on April 1.

The measure to look at a 20:1 match for local donations passed 5-4 as some commissioners predicted a public backlash. The general concept of public financing of campaigns was opposed nearly 3:1 in a Siena Research Institute poll earlier this year.

“The public may have a more difficult time, especially if there is no precedent,” said Commissioner David Previte, an attorney and the appointee of Senate Republican leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport).

The vote was called preliminary and any final decision wouldn’t be made until the entire plan to implement public financing of campaigns is complete on Nov. 27.

Jacobs said the idea arose from among the dozens of speakers in Tuesday’s four-hour hearing in Suffolk County, the fifth of six public hearings planned by the commission.

“I think the donations should only be from the constituents that the candidate is running to represent,” said Roger Meadows, an Uber and Lyft drive in Nassau County. He told the commission of election and political experts that he got the idea by talking to his fares.

“I see what’s going on, I see these people not having their voice heard,” Mills said. “New York state is number one in income inequality … At least if you have that (public match) staggered out, the politicians will be more responsive.”

“I just thought it was genius,” Jacobs said.

Outside the Suffolk County hearing, Republicans said they felt shut out of the Democratic-dominated commission.

“Democrats plan to allow others to write a $100 million welfare plan for their campaigns to bankroll expenses like nasty campaign commercials, annoying robocalls, and mailers,” said Flanagan.

The Republican is challenging the authority of the commission in court, saying Cuomo and Democratic legislators pushed off a politically sensitive issue to an unelected board and gave it the potential to make law. Flanagan called the commission a “traveling commission of scapegoats, who are unaccountable to the public.”

Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this story, Roger Meadows was incorrectly identified.

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