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State funding of campaigns to become law, but challenges await

New York state Assembly members work on passing

New York state Assembly members work on passing legislation in the Assembly Chamber during session at the state Capitol on June 18 in Albany. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — A landmark measure to use tax dollars to help fund political campaigns will become law on Sunday, but more lawsuits and additional legislation could change the plan, officials and activists said.

The $100 million voluntary system would use state funds to match qualifying donations received by a candidate. Participating statewide candidates could receive $6 in state funds for every $1 received by a candidate. Legislative candidates would get a gradated match of as much as 12:1 for donations under $50, with an average of a 9:1 match. Only donations up to $250 would be matched under the system, which aims to reduce the influence of big-money donors on politics as well as policy and spending by state government.

The sweeping law, which would be effective after the 2022 elections, also would make it harder for minor parties as well as individuals not running on a major party line to appear on ballots. The State Legislature had from Dec. 1 to Dec. 22 to amend the law, but the Senate and Assembly did not exercise that option on the politically sensitive measure.

Several lawmakers, minor parties and some good-government groups have criticized the measure for its added burdens on minor parties to secure ballot lines and for the items the measure failed to address. For example, the measure doesn’t limit big contributions spread among several candidates and parties by special interests such as charter school supporters, political action committees and unions, which will remain major players, said Assembly Republican leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua).

Although the legislature did not act this month, Kolb said upcoming court decisions and changes sought in the legislative session or in budget talks could still force changes in the system.

“I think it’s pretty fluid,” he said.

The final form of the system may not come until after Jan. 1, when the legislature returns to session; or as late as April 1, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the legislature are scheduled to approve a 2020-21 budget deal, legislators said.

Some rank-and-file lawmakers are under pressure to make changes in the law as they face election in the fall and need to secure crucial endorsements from minor parties.

Six legislators — Assembly members Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan), Ron Kim (D-Queens), Yuh-Line Niou (D-Manhattan) and Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), and Sens. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) and Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) — had called for a special session before Dec. 22 to act on several significant changes to the law. They had proposed to delete the higher thresholds for minor parties to qualify for ballots; lower contribution limits; and create an independent enforcer, rather than the state Board of Elections.

So far, the legislative leaders aren’t calling for any new legislation after Jan. 1 to change the system, which would require a public vote on the politically divisive issue this coming election year.

“They did raise some concerns, but we’ll see what happens,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) told reporters after a closed-door meeting with his members.

“There are some good things in the recommendation,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) after a planning session with her Democratic conference. “There are certain things our conference was not looking for.”

After a nine-month process and years of failed attempts to secure the progressive goal, word that legislators might try to make changes after Dec. 22 raised Cuomo’s ire.

“Well then,” he told reporters, “then they accomplished nothing.”

Cuomo created the Public Finance Reform Commission, which crafted the system and the law. He supports the public finance system as proposed, which matches some of his previous legislative initiatives. Cuomo could veto any legislative action and his vetoes have never been overridden by the legislature.

“If they don’t like the plan, they should come back for a special session and reform it,” Cuomo said this month. “If they don’t do that, then they accept it. The plan is one plan. It’s integrated. We designed a system. You can’t pull out one piece of the system and expect the system to work, right? Because they’re all interconnected … you can’t pick and choose.”

A court fight also is being waged by a pair of political opposites who, if successful, could void the whole public campaign finance system.

The liberal Working Families Party and the state Conservative Party joined in legal action against the system. A separate lawsuit by the conservative Libertarian Party and the liberal Green Party is promised, depending on what the court rules in the first case.

Both lawsuits seek to strike down parts of the system that more than doubles to 130,000 the number of votes a minor party would need to attract to continue their automatic spots on ballots, which is the source of their influence with major parties.

The independent Brennan Center for Justice at New York University called the new thresholds “monumental increases that are just not justified by any evidence-based analysis." However, supporters of the new thresholds, including Cuomo’s appointees to the commission, and Kolb noted the levels haven’t changed since 1935, despite millions more voters today.

“It’s simply an incumbent protection,” said Peter LaVenia, co-chairman of the Green Party of New York at a news conference.

“They are trying to remove our choice so they can remove our voice,” said Larry Sharpe, who in 2016 ran unsuccessfully to be the Libertarian candidate for vice president.

Any court decision that strikes down any element of the public campaign finance law risks striking down the whole law, according to the legislation.

That’s because the commission, in its effort to force a political consensus, took a single vote for the entire 140-page final report, so no controversial piece could be deleted without losing the whole. That idea carried over to crafting the law: “It is the expressly stated intent of this commission that each of the recommendations made in this report be interpreted as non-severable from any other recommendation.”

“It sounds like a technical term,” said Chisun Lee, senior counsel to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, “but it could all fall apart because of some unanticipated problem … it is really a regrettable scenario and this is something the governor and legislature could fix and should.”

A candidate would have to apply to participate in the public financing program for campaigns. The law is effective in 2021 and contribution limits and other changes begin in 2022, but the full program won’t be in effect until the legislative races in 2024 and the statewide races in 2026.

The candidate would have to agree to restrictions on how its campaign account can be spent and agree to participate in debates.

For a candidate for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general or comptroller, the state would match $6 for every qualified $1 in traditional donations.

State funds will match qualified donations up to $250 from a single donor in all races.

For candidates for the Senate or Assembly, the first $50 donated by a single donor would be matched with $12 of state funds for each $1; the next $100 donation would be matched 9:1 and the final $50 would be matched 8:1.

The state would match donations for an Assembly candidate up to $5,000 from a single donor and up to $10,000 for a single donor to a Senate candidate and up to $18,000 for a donor to a candidate for statewide office.

But to qualify, the candidate must prove he or she is a credible candidate based on fundraising cash and the number of donors and that he or she faces a legitimate challenger.

A candidate seeking matching funds for the governor’s race, for example, would need to raise at least $500,000 and receive donations from at least 5,000 New Yorkers to be eligible for a maximum of $7 million in state funds that could be used in a primary and a general election.

The state would match donations for Senate and Assembly candidates, but only from donors who reside in the district the candidate seeks to represent. Senate candidate would, for example, have to raise $12,000 from 150 donors to get as much as $750,000 in total state matching funds. An Assembly candidate would have to raise at least $6,000 from at least 75 donors.

For minor parties to qualify for an automatic ballot position, they will to attract at least 130,000 votes or 2 percent of the total votes cast, whichever is greater, in election cycles that include races for governor and president.

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