The New York State Assembly passed a bill regarding the...

The New York State Assembly passed a bill regarding the public campaign finance system 82-62 on the last full night of the session this year. Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

ALBANY — The state’s public campaign finance system, which is designed to use public funds to help make elections more competitive, was altered on the last night of the legislative session, just as challengers can begin to qualify for the funding for Senate and Assembly races.

The changes approved on June 9 increase the amounts of donations that would be eligible for public funds and also set higher requirements for candidates to qualify for the public funding.

Supporters say the changes will strengthen the system by making the program similar to the well-regarded New York City system of using public funds aimed at evening the playing field for candidates. However, critics say the new measures instead will protect incumbents and maintain the clout of big-money donors.

“It really amounts to a betrayal of the voters’ trust,” said Joanna Zdanys, senior counsel for elections and government at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “The Legislature really shifts the incentive away from small donors and makes it easier to keep focusing on those who can give a lot of money.”

But Michael Murphy, spokesman for the Senate’s Democratic majority, said, “These updates will ensure the program's first year is a success and bring the state's participation and eligibility standards in line with New York City's successful campaign finance system.”

The bill now goes to Gov. Kathy Hochul to be signed into law or vetoed.

The state public campaign finance system was created in 2020. Democrats had long sought to reduce the influence of money in politics, but it was blocked when Republicans controlled the State Senate. The system was recommended by two previous commissions, including the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption in 2013. The original bill was the subject of several public hearings and was a major campaign plank for Democrats.

In contrast, the new measure was introduced near midnight on June 6 and passed three days later without a public hearing on the last hectic night of the session. It would change the system several ways.

Currently, donations of more than $250 to a candidate don’t qualify for matching funds. The complex system multiplies small donations at different levels of giving to encourage contributions as small as $5. So, a contribution of $250 grows under the formula by as much as $2,300 in state funding, providing a candidate $2,550.

The same formula under the new measure would add $2,300 in public funds for the first $250 of any size contribution up to the state maximum — $6,000 for an Assembly contribution, $10,000 for a Senate contribution and $18,000 for a statewide office.

The measure also would raise the requirements for candidates to qualify for state funds — doubling, to $24,000 — the amount of contributions a legislative candidate would have to raise to receive state funds. Candidates also would have to attract 350 small contributions to qualify for state funds, up from 150 contributions, and to attract donations from more residents within their district. A menu of other requirements includes endorsement by an elected official or coming within 20 points of the winner in an election within the last six years.

Supporters say the recent changes would help counter the influence of super political action committees, which were allowed under a 2010 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Super PACs are mostly funded by megadonors and support Republicans, and have few restrictions on spending.

“With a Supreme Court determined to erode democracy and expand the influence of shadowy big-money in politics, New York has taken the lead by standing up for the most ambitious public campaign finance programs in the nation,” Murphy said.

Some good-government advocates, including John Kaehny, director of the nonpartisan Reinvent Albany good-government group, suggest another motivation. In the last three election cycles, insurgent Democrats have knocked out Democratic incumbents in the State Legislature, and Republicans have scored gains in local elections.

“The Democrats, who completely control everything, are operating on fear and cynicism, rather than hope,” Kaehny said. “Unfortunately, they are doing themselves political damage. They just gutted what we felt was the most important fair election measure out there … based on what is good for the Democratic Party.”

The State Legislature’s action comes during the first year that public funds will be available to Senate and Assembly challengers, who will vie for seats in 2024.

“The Democrats are waking up and realizing this public financing can seriously hurt some of their incumbents,” Assembly Republican leader Will Barclay (R-Pulaski) said. “They are worried about it.”

A group of 200 progressive and labor groups called Fair Elections for New York Coalition were among the advocates who fought against the new measure.

“This bill undermines the program’s core purpose: to empower the voices of everyday New Yorkers who for too long have been drowned out by the big money checks of the wealthy and well-connected,” the coalition said.

Even some opponents, such as the New York Public Interest Research Group, agree the bill strengthens some provisions of the public campaign finance system. One of them makes sure the program will remain operable even if a small element is ruled unconstitutional. Such “severability” clauses often allow legislators to fix a piece of a program without losing it altogether.

But NYPIRG also said the new measure continues an overly complicated process with contribution limits that are too high, a lack of independent enforcement and inadequate disclosure of contributors.

“Clean public dollars are being used to amplify the voice of Albany fat cats, and that’s not the intent of the program,” said Blair Horner, NYPIRG’s executive director.

In the end, the bill passed the Legislature on the last full night of the session by close margins, with some Democrats voting against the Democratic supermajority. The bill passed the Senate 32-31. The Assembly passed it 82-62.

Some prominent Democrats, including Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Liz Krueger of Manhattan, voted against the measure.

“I do believe in public financing of campaigns,” Sen. Rachel May (D-Syracuse) said, “but I have too many problems with this bill.”

ALBANY — The state’s public campaign finance system, which is designed to use public funds to help make elections more competitive, was altered on the last night of the legislative session, just as challengers can begin to qualify for the funding for Senate and Assembly races.

The changes approved on June 9 increase the amounts of donations that would be eligible for public funds and also set higher requirements for candidates to qualify for the public funding.

Supporters say the changes will strengthen the system by making the program similar to the well-regarded New York City system of using public funds aimed at evening the playing field for candidates. However, critics say the new measures instead will protect incumbents and maintain the clout of big-money donors.

“It really amounts to a betrayal of the voters’ trust,” said Joanna Zdanys, senior counsel for elections and government at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “The Legislature really shifts the incentive away from small donors and makes it easier to keep focusing on those who can give a lot of money.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The state’s public campaign finance system was altered on the last night of the legislative session, just as challengers can begin to qualify for the funding for Senate and Assembly races.
  • The changes increase the amounts of donations that would be eligible for public funds and set higher requirements for candidates to qualify for public money.
  • Supporters say the changes will make the program similar to New York City's well-regarded system. Critics say they instead will protect incumbents and the clout of big-money donors.

But Michael Murphy, spokesman for the Senate’s Democratic majority, said, “These updates will ensure the program's first year is a success and bring the state's participation and eligibility standards in line with New York City's successful campaign finance system.”

The bill now goes to Gov. Kathy Hochul to be signed into law or vetoed.

The state public campaign finance system was created in 2020. Democrats had long sought to reduce the influence of money in politics, but it was blocked when Republicans controlled the State Senate. The system was recommended by two previous commissions, including the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption in 2013. The original bill was the subject of several public hearings and was a major campaign plank for Democrats.

In contrast, the new measure was introduced near midnight on June 6 and passed three days later without a public hearing on the last hectic night of the session. It would change the system several ways.

Currently, donations of more than $250 to a candidate don’t qualify for matching funds. The complex system multiplies small donations at different levels of giving to encourage contributions as small as $5. So, a contribution of $250 grows under the formula by as much as $2,300 in state funding, providing a candidate $2,550.

The same formula under the new measure would add $2,300 in public funds for the first $250 of any size contribution up to the state maximum — $6,000 for an Assembly contribution, $10,000 for a Senate contribution and $18,000 for a statewide office.

The measure also would raise the requirements for candidates to qualify for state funds — doubling, to $24,000 — the amount of contributions a legislative candidate would have to raise to receive state funds. Candidates also would have to attract 350 small contributions to qualify for state funds, up from 150 contributions, and to attract donations from more residents within their district. A menu of other requirements includes endorsement by an elected official or coming within 20 points of the winner in an election within the last six years.

Supporters say the recent changes would help counter the influence of super political action committees, which were allowed under a 2010 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Super PACs are mostly funded by megadonors and support Republicans, and have few restrictions on spending.

“With a Supreme Court determined to erode democracy and expand the influence of shadowy big-money in politics, New York has taken the lead by standing up for the most ambitious public campaign finance programs in the nation,” Murphy said.

Some good-government advocates, including John Kaehny, director of the nonpartisan Reinvent Albany good-government group, suggest another motivation. In the last three election cycles, insurgent Democrats have knocked out Democratic incumbents in the State Legislature, and Republicans have scored gains in local elections.

“The Democrats, who completely control everything, are operating on fear and cynicism, rather than hope,” Kaehny said. “Unfortunately, they are doing themselves political damage. They just gutted what we felt was the most important fair election measure out there … based on what is good for the Democratic Party.”

The State Legislature’s action comes during the first year that public funds will be available to Senate and Assembly challengers, who will vie for seats in 2024.

“The Democrats are waking up and realizing this public financing can seriously hurt some of their incumbents,” Assembly Republican leader Will Barclay (R-Pulaski) said. “They are worried about it.”

A group of 200 progressive and labor groups called Fair Elections for New York Coalition were among the advocates who fought against the new measure.

“This bill undermines the program’s core purpose: to empower the voices of everyday New Yorkers who for too long have been drowned out by the big money checks of the wealthy and well-connected,” the coalition said.

Even some opponents, such as the New York Public Interest Research Group, agree the bill strengthens some provisions of the public campaign finance system. One of them makes sure the program will remain operable even if a small element is ruled unconstitutional. Such “severability” clauses often allow legislators to fix a piece of a program without losing it altogether.

But NYPIRG also said the new measure continues an overly complicated process with contribution limits that are too high, a lack of independent enforcement and inadequate disclosure of contributors.

“Clean public dollars are being used to amplify the voice of Albany fat cats, and that’s not the intent of the program,” said Blair Horner, NYPIRG’s executive director.

In the end, the bill passed the Legislature on the last full night of the session by close margins, with some Democrats voting against the Democratic supermajority. The bill passed the Senate 32-31. The Assembly passed it 82-62.

Some prominent Democrats, including Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Liz Krueger of Manhattan, voted against the measure.

“I do believe in public financing of campaigns,” Sen. Rachel May (D-Syracuse) said, “but I have too many problems with this bill.”

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