ALBANY — New Yorkers will soon provide up to $100 million in public financing to help fund candidates’ campaigns, but exactly how the landmark reform legislation will be implemented is up to a special commission.
And what it does will help determine whether it will succeed in reducing the influence of big-money donors or whether it will turn into what critics fear will be a taxpayer-paid boondoggle.
The Public Financing of Elections Commission met for the first time last month and will hold four public hearings in the fall, including an Oct. 22 session in Smithtown.
The commission has the potential to drastically change New York politics more than at any moment in decades by making races more competitive and reducing a pipeline for money that has played a role in corruption scandals.
The commission will consider ideas that include reducing the nation’s highest campaign contribution caps and banning lobbyists’ donations, while prohibiting companies seeking or doing business with the state from contributing to candidates for up to a year. Campaign donations from companies with state contracts have long been an issue in Albany’s corruption scandals.
Most of these proposals have been bottled up in Albany for a decade, with the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unable to reach agreement. Not on the list at this time are two political reforms that have been strongly supported in public opinion polls but opposed by Albany officials: Term limits and caps on campaign spending.
The decision to offer voluntary public financing of campaigns was made in a measure adopted with the state budget on April 1. The commission is charged with implementing a system that would match with public funds individual contributions as little as $10. That could help draw more voters into the elective process by giving them confidence that their participation is significant, while providing an easier route for more candidates who wouldn't have to raise as much money on their own, including women and minorities.
“The commission is going to make every effort to develop an effective public financing option,” said Jay Jacobs, Nassau County Democratic chairman and a member of the commission appointed by Cuomo. “It would be substantial change.”
Studies have concluded that public financing of campaigns works to increase participation by voters and candidates, said Michael Malbin, political science professor at the University at Albany and director of the Campaign Finance Institute, which has studied New York’s proposal.
“I don’t know how the commission might change it,” Malbin said. “There are all sorts of things they could do.”
Public financing of campaigns is a response in part to the nearly unlimited spending in campaigns through “independent expenditures” by wealthy special interests for and against candidates, which was allowed under the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U. S. Supreme Court.
The Brennan Center For Justice at New York University Law School, a good-government advocacy group, found that in the 2018 election cycle in New York just 100 individuals donated more to candidates than 137,000 small donations combined.
“This is a massive first step for real change,” said Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center.
Some are skeptical. Under the law that created the commission, the panel’s final recommendation, which must be made by Dec. 1, will become law unless the legislature returns to session and rejects or amends it within 20 days. Some good-government advocates warn of “poison pills” that could make candidates pass on the system because they could raise more money without its restrictions and additional audits. The Constitution prohibits a mandatory public campaign finance system.
The key question is whether incumbents with reliable, big-money donors will join a public financing system with all its restrictions, additional audits and paperwork. For example, Cuomo already has $8 million in his campaign account although he won't face re-election again until 2022 when he could have more than $20 million on hand, based on his past campaigns. Campaigns for statewide offices and key legislative races such as Senate races on Long Island have also spent millions of dollars each and attracted big donors, which could make public funding unnecessary.
If most candidates skip the public financing system, the system would likely remain in place but its goals of limiting the influence of wealthy special interests, making more races competitive and making the whole electoral process more transparent could be lost.
“The New York State Legislature … should prepare for the possibility that the commission’s work will not be adequate,” said Gene Binder of Concerned Citizens for Change, warning of the power of big-money interests in the process.
Other critics oppose one of the commission’s biggest targets: “Fusion voting.” New York is one of the few states that allow fusion voting, where a candidate can collect votes cast on minor party lines, including the liberal Working Families Party and the Conservative Party, in addition to votes as a Democrat or Republican.
Fusion voting isn’t directly related to public financing of campaigns, but Cuomo and the state Democratic Committee have long sought to end it. The Working Families Party has twice challenged Cuomo for progressive voters and the Conservative Party has long been critical to attracting more votes for Republicans.
“Commissioners should be deeply concerned about the appearance of being used for political purposes,” stated the progressive Fair Elections for New York group, which is supported in part by the Working Families Party.
“This proposed public financing commission is a ploy to remove power from the Legislature, by delegating the authority of our duly elected representatives to a mystery commission,” said Susan Lerner of Common Cause NY. The good-government group opposes the short timetable for such potentially drastic change, but welcomes the public hearings to address a decades-old pressing need.
Discussions at this early stage are based primarily on Cuomo’s proposal, which the Campaign Finance Institute said would provide up to $18 million in public funds for a candidate for governor, up to $350,000 for an Assembly candidate and up to $750,000 for a Senate candidate for each election cycle.
Cuomo’s proposal includes a matching system of providing $6 in public funds for every $1 collected by a candidate under the new rules, including lower donation maximums and a ban on lobbyists’ donations. The proposed match would turn a $175 contribution into $1,225.
But good-government groups say the commission can change most elements in that plan, including the 6:1 ratio — a formula used in New York City’s program — and by lowering the amount of total funding to less than $100 million.
Reinvent Albany, a conservative good government group, also calls for the commission to match only contributions that total up to $175, not the first $175 of larger contributions under some systems.
The commission is specifically directed to alter the matching formula based on regional costs of campaigning, from the high-priced Manhattan TV market to rural Jamestown, 400 miles to the west. That could mean a generous 6:1 match for Long Island, New York City and Westchester races, but a far less generous one upstate.
Also to be decided by the commission is what entity would enforce the program and what penalties could be levied. The state Board of Elections has long been gridlocked on tough issues because it is run by an equal number of appointed Democrats and Republicans.
Reinvent Albany calls for a separate enforcement body independent of the Board of Elections.
Contribution limits could also be reduced from Cuomo's proposal.
Currently, a single contributor can donate up to $117,000 a year to political campaigns. That could include up to $65,000 for a single candidate for governor; $8,000 for an Assembly candidate and up to $18,000 for a Senate candidate, according to the Campaign Finance Institute study.
“If contribution limits remain so high, fewer candidates will want to opt into a voluntary public financing system with lower contribution limits when they can raise enormous contributions outside the program,” said Reinvent Albany in its 18-point recommendation to the commission.
Under Cuomo’s proposal, a donor who doesn’t join the system would be limited to contributing $6,000 to an Assembly candidate; $10,000 to a Senate candidate and $25,000 for a candidate for statewide office. For candidates who choose to use a public financing system, a donor would be limited to $4,000 in donations to an Assembly candidate; $8,000 to a Senate candidate and $12,000 for a candidate for statewide office, all of which would then be multiplied about six-fold in public funds.
Many good-government groups also want full bans on contributions from lobbyists and companies doing business with the state.
In addition, Malbin said the study by his Campaign Finance Institute of the governor’s proposal estimated the total cost to taxpayers would be $65 million, not $100 million. But Malbin said either figure provides plenty of resources to implement a system with substantial changes.
Malbin also said the group’s study found few candidates would have qualified for the system and if its many deadline thresholds for funding had been in place in the 2018 legislative elections, he said.
“The qualification has to be set at a level where a reasonable number of candidates will qualify soon enough for it to be useful,” Malbin said.
Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said the commission also must develop enough incentives to attract as many candidates as possible to join the public financing system or create disincentives for opting out of the system. He said lower contribution limits, requiring more small donors and the other measures the commission will consider are long overdue.
“Our current campaign finance system is rotten to the core,” Horner said.