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Court: Panel that created public campaign financing is unconstitutional

ALBANY — A lower court on Thursday declared that the appointed commission that created a system to use state money to finance political campaigns was unconstitutional.

The decision in state Supreme Court in Niagara County said the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo were wrong last year when they appointed a commission to handle the politically sensitive issue and give its recommendations the power of law. The commission also made it harder for minor parities to secure a spot on ballots.

“The court finds that the statute is an improper and unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority to the commission,” stated state Supreme Court Justice Ralph Boniello III.

“You can’t rent out the legislative function to political appointees,” said Richard Brodsky, a former Democratic Assembly member and lawyer for the liberal Working Families Party, which brought the lawsuit.

The Public Campaign Financing and Election Commission, supported by attorneys for Cuomo and the legislature, promised to appeal the decision.

“I’m sure that will be appealed and we’ll see how it turns out,” said Jay Jacobs, one of the Cuomo’s appointees to the commission, who often acted as chairman.

“I’m confident that at the end of the day, the law will be safe,” Jacobs said in an interview.

Brodsky said Thursday’s decision may have a broader impact. He said the decision “casts a real shadow” on the use of appointed commissions to carry out political dicey mandates and avoid public votes by elected officials. Before this case, part of the action of a commission created to raise the salaries of legislators and statewide elected officials was struck down

A spokesman for state Attorney General Letitia James, who supported the Public Campaign Financing and Election Commission’s case, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The commission’s recommendations became law in December. The state budget agreement struck months before, on April 1, created the commission and gave its recommendations the force of law, unless the legislature returned in special session in December to change or reject the recommendations. The legislature let the recommendations stand, avoiding a public fight among lawmakers over whether to use $100 million in state funds to help pay for political campaigns.

Polls had shown using state taxpayers’ money to fund political campaigns wasn’t popular.

The most controversial issue was pushed by Jacobs, the state and Nassau County Democratic chairman. Jacobs sought to require minor parties to attract far more voters than as currently required to remain on ballots. The commission decided a minor party would have to attract 130,000, or 2% of the total votes cast in gubernatorial and presidential elections every two years to maintain a coveted automatic spot on the ballot. That spot avoids the expensive and arduous effort to petition onto the ballot every year.

The measure replaced a threshold of 50,000 votes required every four years in a gubernatorial election.

For example, the Working Families Party, which has clashed with and challenged Cuomo in recent years, could see its influence significantly reduced if it can’t reach the new threshold.

Supporters of the law argue that public financing of campaigns will limit the influence of big-money donors and get more individuals involved in campaigns. They also say that only minor parties that can show they are relevant to a significant number of voters should be allowed to received public funding for their campaigns.

Based on the 2018 election, only the state Conservative Party, which attracted 253,624 votes, would meet the new threshold. 

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