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Panel agrees on a system for public funding of political campaigns 

ALBANY — A commission charged with reducing the influence of big-money donors in state politics agreed to a plan Monday that would use millions of dollars in state funds to help fund political campaigns, while setting new standards that could end the clout of many minor parties.

The voluntary system will match donations received by candidates who choose to participate. Candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller could get $6 in state funding for every $1 raised in contributions. To encourage small contributions from voters rather than from wealthy special interests, the system would only match donations of $250 or less. In legislative races, donations up to $50 would be matched by $12 in public funds for each $1 raised; donations above that up to $100 would be matched 10:1, and match on the final $100 would be 8:1. For legislative candidates, only contributions from within the district would be matched. 

“I do believe it amplifies the voice in low-income districts … their $10 or $20 will go that much farther,” said Commissioner Rosanna Vargas, an appointee of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx).

The commissioners agreed the system is flawed, but compromise was needed to enact public financing of campaigns after years of debate as a way to increase voter turnout, reduce the influence of big-money donors and combat corruption in state government. The proposal will become law unless the Legislature changes it by Dec. 21, which isn't expected.

One problem cited by critics of the proposal is that even candidates who choose to join the public system also can continue to raise contributions under current, looser regulations. That money wouldn’t be matched.

“The incentive to fundraise constantly is still there,” said Commissioner David Previte, who was appointed by Senate Republican leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport). “You really are creating a base subsidy for candidates.”

But the most controversial aspect of the commission’s work drew the ire of even longtime supporters of public financing.

One of Cuomo’s appointees to the commission, Acting Chairman Jay Jacobs of Nassau County, recommended new thresholds for minor parties to secure their essential automatic lines on ballots, which provide the minor parties with influence in the major parties. For decades, the liberal Working Families Party has provided more votes for the Democratic Party. Similarly, the state Conservative Party, carrying a Republican candidate on their line, provided essential votes of the GOP. In exchange, the minor parties have a say in candidates and policy positions.

Currently, minor parties that attract at least 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial campaign secure an automatic spot on ballots for the next four years and avoid the costly effort to secure a line by petition each election cycle.

The board agreed to Jacobs’ proposal of raising that threshold to 130,00 votes.

Based on the 2018 election, that would deny the liberal Working Families Party and at least four other minor parties an automatic line on the ballot. The Working Families Party has challenged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in his last two reelection campaigns; in 2018 it backed activist-actress Cynthia Nixon against him.

Only the Conservative Party would meet the new threshold.

Minor parties argue they provide more choice to voters. Opponents say many minor parties exchange their endorsement for campaign donations and patronage jobs. Jacobs said including them could bankrupt the public financing system and invite corruption.

Minor party leaders were outraged.

The Working Families Party issued a statement that the new threshold “would make New York among the most hostile states to minor parties in the nation.”

“We are not looking to target any particular party,” Jacobs said. “Any credible party … is going to make these thresholds.”

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