Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1516 Sat, 20 Apr 2019 16:36:58 +0000 en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Council Hears Bill to Expand Public Match in Campaign Finance Program http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8452-city-council-hears-bill-to-expand-public-campaign-finance-matching-program http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8452-city-council-hears-bill-to-expand-public-campaign-finance-matching-program Kallos City Council

Council Member Kallos (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


The City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations heard testimony on Monday on a bill to expand the public matching funds available to candidates under the city’s campaign finance program.

The campaign finance system incentivizes individuals to seek small dollar donations when running for office, matching those contributions with public funds. Under a recent city charter amendment approved by voters, a citywide candidate can receive public funds at an 8-to-1 ratio for the first $250 of each contribution (an increase from 6-to-1 for the first $175), and they can cover up to 75% of the spending limit for the office through public funds (up from 55%).

That charter change was quickly implemented through local law, sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, for all special elections before the 2021 general election, thus applying to multiple races this year.

Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, has also proposed increasing the public funds cap to roughly 89% of the spending limit, effectively allowing candidates to run their campaigns entirely on small contributions and the subsequent public match, and diluting the effect of wealthier, larger donors. And he hopes to put that reform into effect for the 2021 city election cycle, which will feature a massive number of local races, from citywide and borough wide posts through the City Council. Kallos estimates it will lead to roughly $61.7 million in public funds disbursements, about $10.3 million more than if the 75% match is kept in place. His projections are based on participation rates in the 2013 election when the CFB gave about $38 million to qualifying candidates. 

“I think this is a gamechanger,” Kallos said at Monday’s hearing, citing the recent citywide public advocate special election as proof that increasing the public funds match reduced big donations. He pointed to the latest campaign finance disclosures from all the campaigns, which showed that contributions of $250 or less made up 61% of all contributions, up from 26.3% of all contributions in the 2013 public advocate race, according to his office’s analysis of the numbers.

“We have flipped how campaigns are financed, upside down,” said Kallos, who is term-limited and expected to seek higher office in 2021, emphasizing that he believes the system must be expanded to fully eliminate big money donations.

[Read: Council Member Kallos Pushes Next Increase in Matching Funds Available Through Public Campaign Finance System]

Kallos’ bill has the support of the committee chair, Council Member Fernando Cabrera, and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is exploring a run for mayor and only taking donations of $250 and under. But other city officials seemed less sure about the exact proposal while supporting its goals more broadly.

Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, the city’s new chief democracy officer who runs Mayor Bill de Blasio’s DemocracyNYC initiative, generally praised the campaign finance program and the recent improvements that were enacted within it by the charter amendment, which was set into motion by the mayor’s formation of a charter revision commission.

She emphasized the need to increase public engagement in the city’s democracy by increasing public trust. “Establishing this trust begins with rooting out corruption and even the perception of corruption by getting big money out of politics,” she said in her testimony. But she said while the administration “support[s] the values” of Kallos’ bill, there would need to be more discussion of its specifics with advocates, the Council, and the city’s Campaign Finance Board (CFB), which administers the campaign finance program.

Similarly, Amy Loprest, executive director of the CFB, and Frederick Schaffer, chair of the board, said they were “supportive of the goals of this legislation” but had practical concerns about the current version. For one, Loprest noted, the recent charter amendment imposed a prohibition on early payment of public funds unless a candidate submits a Certified Statement of Need, in order to prevent unserious candidates or those without any opposition from getting public money. Kallos’ bill removes that prohibition, and Loprest said it should find a way to address it.

She also pointed out that candidates who rely overwhelmingly on public funds -- which are subject to fairly strict standards for campaign use -- would lack the flexibility to spend campaign funds on expenditures that do not qualify for the public funds program. For instance, cash payments or post-election spending.

The bill has the support of Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, and Dawn Smalls, an attorney who ran for public advocate in the February special election.

Tom Speaker, a policy analyst at Reinvent Albany, pointed out that with the current 75% cap on public funds, candidates for City Council would still have to raise about $47,000 in private donations and could look to wealthy donors. ‘“Raising the cap can reduce that dependency and allow for more donations from small donors,” he said.

Smalls, who was a first-time candidate in February, emphasized the importance of the small dollar matching program, which she said, “allowed me to communicate with voters and effectively compete in this race.” She did, however, criticize the CFB’s compliance regulations, which she said are "an unnecessary burden on all candidates, but one that falls excessively on candidates that may be new to the process and have less infrastructure." She emphasized her campaign's sophisticated operation and team of professionals, which she said shouldn't be necessary or reasonably expected of first-time candidates.  

Not everyone in the Council is a fan of the bill, of course. Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat and former campaign finance consultant, criticized the proposal and sought to repeatedly poke holes in the campaign finance program more broadly.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to clarify Dawn Smalls' comments.

Note - This article has been updated with cost projections from Council Member Ben Kallos.

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City Council Hears Bill to Expand Public Match in Campaign Finance Program Mon, 15 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
It’s Time to Get Big Money Out of the Climate Change Fight http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8435-it-s-time-to-get-big-money-out-of-the-climate-change-fight http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8435-it-s-time-to-get-big-money-out-of-the-climate-change-fight gnd4ny divestny

(photo: John McCarten/NY City Council)


The window for meaningful action on climate change is narrowing. Every year, as more climate impacts become “locked-in,” changes we have to make to save the planet become even harder to implement. Right now, fossil fuel industry campaign contributions to politicians are holding back the solutions we need.  

If we want to pass climate policies that could actually help reverse the climate crisis, then we also need to fix our democratic system that gives too much power to wealthy donors and big polluters. In New York, a state where wealthy donors contribute an outsized proportion of funds to campaigns, we have the opportunity to build a public campaign financing system that can address this imbalance. These two crises are interconnected.

Nationally, the fossil fuel industry has tightened its stranglehold on American politics. In the 2018 election cycle alone, $89 million in campaign contributions came from the oil, gas, and coal industry with the vast majority going to Republicans. Contributions from the fossil fuels sector put a stop to ballot initiatives that would have created landmark state climate and energy legislation here in New York—and across the nation.

In the battle over fracked gas development in New York, oil, gas, and fracking support industries spent $10.7 million on contributions and $33.5 million on lobbying from 2007 to 2013, stalling several fracking restriction measures. While grassroots activists eventually succeeded in pushing Governor Cuomo to take executive action to ban fracking, this influx of pro-fracking cash signals potentially bigger battles ahead as the state considers a 100% renewable energy target.

In 2018 in Washington state, $31.5 million was pumped mostly from mostly out-of-state oil and gas industry into a campaign that ultimately defeated a carbon tax measure that would create revenue for renewable energy and vulnerable communities. And a proposition that would have set restrictions on gas fracking in Colorado was defeated after oil and gas spent over $26 million in the state.

That is why a growing chorus of environmental advocates is calling for public financing of elections — which expands the contributions of small donors through public matching programs. With a fair elections system, elected officials would be more responsive to the electorate, an overwhelming majority of which believes we need bold policies to address climate change.

One of our best hopes today is here in New York, where lawmakers are on the cusp of passing groundbreaking climate policy and the state budget has just included a commission mandated to develop a public financing system for the state.

Public financing of elections would fundamentally change how Albany works, and amplify the power of working people and people of color. In the long term, fair elections mean that our elected officials will be more engaged with constituents in their districts and responsive to public concerns and needs.

To implement an effective fair elections program, legislators and Governor Cuomo must appoint commissioners committed to expanding access to our democracy. A robust program would also include a 6-to-1 contribution match for low-dollar sums, lower contribution limits, and an independent agency to administer the program. In order to limit the influence of big donors who seek to block effective climate policy and other urgent reforms, the commission must act quickly and decisively. Kicking the can down the road is not an option.

Simultaneously we can pass the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) to put New York on a path to 100% renewable energy economy-wide. The CCPA is ground-up policy, with a coalition of over 160 groups from across the state backing the proposal. The bill puts in place requirements for energy investments to go to disadvantaged communities, and working groups that include community group representatives to oversee implementation of state energy plans. This means more people could be part of shaping an equitable energy transition for New York.

The impacts of climate change are not felt equally by all. We need to ensure a more inclusive political process to address everyone’s needs, especially those most vulnerable to climate impacts and pollution, and communities that have been historically excluded from political decision-making.

We have the technology we need to begin a rapid transition to a renewable energy economy. Our ability to implement climate solutions is, therefore, a political question. With the majority of New Yorkers in support of government action to curb climate change, a legislature that is more responsive to the electorate could usher the ambitious climate policies we need. Public financing and bold climate measures like the CCPA can reorient our politics to expand who is heard and who is at the table.

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Bill Lipton is the New York State Director of the Working Families Party. Adrien Salazar is a Campaign Strategist with Dēmos and one of the 2019 Grist 50 Fixers. On Twitter @BillLipton of @NYWFP & @adrien4ej of @Demos_Org.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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It’s Time to Get Big Money Out of the Climate Change Fight Mon, 08 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Member Kallos Pushes Next Increase in Matching Funds Available Through Public Campaign Finance System http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8418-city-council-member-kallos-increase-matching-funds-available-public-campaign-finance-system http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8418-city-council-member-kallos-increase-matching-funds-available-public-campaign-finance-system Ben Kallos campaign finance

Council Member Kallos (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


New York City Council Member Ben Kallos is moving forward with a bill to increase the amount of public funds a candidate running for elected office can receive from the city’s campaign finance program, in order to further reduce the influence of big money donors in local political campaigns.

New York City’s voluntary campaign finance program matches small dollar donations in order to afford candidates without deep pockets or wealthy donors a more level playing field in elections. In November, voters approved a ballot question that increased the matching ratio from 6-to-1 for the first $175 of a contribution to 8-to-1 for the first $250 for citywide offices ($175 for all other offices), and increased the maximum amount of public funds that could be paid out from 55% of the spending limit for an office to 75%.

The changes also reduced individual contribution limits across the board and gave candidates running in the 2021 city elections the choice to opt in to the new rules, which otherwise go into mandatory effect beginning 2022.

Following the charter change, Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, quickly advanced legislation that Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law to implement those rules for special elections taking place before the 2021 primaries, giving candidates the same option to choose between the old and new rules. In the February special election for public advocate, a majority of the candidates opted in to the new system and larger donations dropped.

[Read: Report: Under New Law, Small Donors Drove Public Advocate Special Election Campaigns]

Encouraged by those results, Kallos is pushing his new bill, which goes even further and would increase the maximum public funds payment from 75% to 88.8% of the spending limits for the 2021 elections, further encouraging candidates to raise $250 and below from individuals, and effectively leaving no gap for candidates to fill with larger private donations. The 2021 elections will be a massive undertaking with the mayor, comptroller, five borough presidents and about three dozen Council members, including Kallos, term limited out of office. Kallos, who is expected to run for higher office, told Gotham Gazette in an interview that his bill already has 34 sponsors, a super-majority of the 51-seat Council, and is scheduled for a committee hearing on April 15.

“It is going to do what the Charter Revision Commission should have done to begin with but couldn’t,” he said, noting that the bill would also place the new rules in the city’s administrative code. “We’re going to put things where they were supposed to be if we hadn’t had to go around the City Council,” he added, referring to the fact that the charter change approved by voters could have been done through City Council legislation and did not need to be made through referendum.

Mayoral spokesperson Raul Contreras said the mayor’s office would have to review the bill. “The power of your voice shouldn’t depend on how deep your pockets run. Public financing empowers the voices of the average New Yorker, which is a belief the majority of voters reaffirmed when they overwhelmingly voted for public financing in the 2018 general election,” Contreras said in a statement.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s office did not return a request for comment but Johnson has previously supported a version of Kallos’ bill that was introduced in the prior legislative session of the Council and that would have accomplished the same result.

Though the bill has plenty of support within the Council, Kallos nonetheless expects some opposition. Any effort to expand the public matching funds program is inevitably criticized with similar refrains about the cost to taxpayers. Public funds payments come with thresholds that candidates must meet to show that their campaigns are serious and viable, and strict penalties for the misuse of public funds.

“Candidates who are not serious would be well-advised to stay away from a full public matching system,” Kallos said. “Candidates who have sought to abuse the system have found themselves fined and had to pay back the public dollars...and I think that is enough of an incentive for people to not do it.”

He continued, “We want our elected officials to work for us and getting in arguments about whether or not somebody’s opposition is credible, or whether they should take public dollars defeats the point that we want elected officials taking clean money from the government that is coming as a multiplier on small dollars instead of spending all of their time raising money from big donors.”

After the April 15 hearing in the Council’s government operations committee, of which Kallos was formerly chair and is now a member, it could be tweaked, and would need to be passed by the committee and then the full Council in order to face approval or veto by the mayor.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated.

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Council Member Kallos Pushes Next Increase in Matching Funds Available Through Public Campaign Finance System Tue, 02 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
In State Budget, More on Voting, Little on Ethics, and Half-Baked Campaign Finance Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8414-state-budget-a-mixed-bag-on-election-ethics-and-campaign-finance-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8414-state-budget-a-mixed-bag-on-election-ethics-and-campaign-finance-reforms Cuomo presentation budget

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/governor's office)


The 2020 state budget agreement between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature is one of the most consequential legislative packages to have passed in several years and enacts sweeping changes to the state’s criminal justice system, mass transit in New York City, voting laws, health care, environmental protections, and more. But government reform advocates are disappointed by what they see as half-measures on campaign finance reform and the exclusion of broader improvements to state procurement processes and government ethics reforms.

Over the last three months, the state Legislature, under Democratic control for the first time in nearly a decade, quickly acted to pass several voting and campaign finance reforms that Democratic elected officials and candidates, including Cuomo, have backed and campaigned on for years.

The Legislature approved early voting, consolidated the state and federal primary into one day in June, enacted pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and reduced contribution limits for limited liability companies to $5,000, greatly narrowing the infamous “LLC loophole.” Cuomo signed those bills into law. The Legislature also passed resolutions to amend the state constitution to allow no-excuse absentee ballots by mail and same-day voter registration -- the resolutions will have to be passed again by the next Legislature seated in 2021 and will then have to be approved by voters in a referendum.

The budget deal passed early Monday morning included additional measures and funding for voting, election, and campaign finance reforms approved in previous months. The headline, though, was the compromise to mandate a binding commission that is meant to create a public financing program for state elections and must issue a report by December 1. The commission’s recommendations will become law unless the Legislature overrides it during a special session before the end of the year.

[Read: Cuomo, Legislators Agree to $175.5 Billion Budget with Congestion Pricing, Criminal Justice Reform and Commitment to Public Campaign Financing]

“On public integrity and anti-corruption issues, the governor and the Legislature have fallen short because they failed to put reforms in statute,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government reform group. “On voting, they’re making very good progress in modernizing the state’s voting system...the Legislature and the governor have exceeded expectations I’d say. That’s really the lone bright spot on good government in the budget.”

Campaign Finance
The governor and Legislature couldn’t come to an agreement on implementing a public financing system with lower contribution limits for candidates and a small-donation matching program, owing largely to opposition in the state Assembly where Speaker Carl Heastie publicly raised doubts about having enough votes to approve the proposal, despite prior support for such a program when Republicans controlled the Senate.

In the end, the budget agreement sets the state on the road to creating a system through a commission, which will have binding authority and $100 million in appropriations (the Legislature can still amend the commission’s recommendations within 20 days of the report being released). “It is too complicated,” Cuomo said at a news conference on Sunday of approving a public financing model. “It’s not a simple system to put in place, it’s especially not simple statewide.”

Advocates say there isn’t enough clarity in the commission’s guidelines and have vowed to hold the feet of the governor and Legislature to the fire. The Fair Elections for NY coalition called the budget a “missed opportunity” to enact reform. The coalition of advocacy, community, and labor groups organized a massive push for a public financing program modelled on the one used in New York City, calling for a 6-to-1 match in public funds for every qualifying dollar that a candidate raises through the program (the city’s program was recently expanded to an 8-to-1 match).

“The value of this commission will be determined by the quality of its appointees and the public process it offers to allow every day New Yorkers and experts to shape the outcome,” the coalition said in a statement. “We intend to hold our elected officials accountable to their promises and make sure New York actually delivers a historic victory without poison pills.”

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, said a public financing program should have been included in the budget, considering that Democrats have been pushing it for years. “Now that the task is put to a commission, the leaders must act swiftly to appoint qualified, independent members with a track record of public service, and a commitment to creating a robust small donor public financing program,” he said in a statement. “All must ensure a participatory process that is transparent to the public. Nothing less is required to secure the public’s trust.”

Nine commission members will be appointed -- two each by the governor and majority and minority leaders of both legislative chambers. The final appointee must be chosen through consensus by all of the appointing parties and approved by the governor. Camarda from Reinvent Albany noted that the commission will have to approve a system through a majority vote, which is not guaranteed, nor is a 6-to-1 match or any independent enforcement of a new system. Camarda also pointed out that New York’s sky-high contribution limits for those who do not opt in to the program won’t be lowered, disincentivizing candidates from participating.

When laying out his 2019 agenda late last year, Cuomo had called for completely banning corporate donations to political candidates, but that measure did not make it into the budget.

Another Cuomo proposal that was not included in the budget was a complete closure of the so-called LLC loophole. LLCs allow individuals to circumvent contribution limits by shielding the identities of donors and, until recently, had the ability to donate as much as $65,000 to gubernatorial candidates. The Legislature brought those donation limits down to $5,000, in line with limits for corporations, but that does not completely preclude the loophole from being exploited.

The governor had also proposed greater donor disclosure requirements for 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations, which he said were contributing to a plague of independent expenditures in state elections, but some charged was another attempt by the governor to target groups that have been critical of him. Those proposals were left out of the final budget as well.

Voting and Elections
The final budget agreement includes $10 million in funding to localities to implement a 10-day early voting program, approves three hours (up from two) of paid time off on election day, authorizes electronic poll books with $14.7 million in funding, and expands voting hours at upstate polling sites to bring them in line with New York City and its surrounding suburbs (6 am to 9 pm).

The budget also mandates that the Board of Elections create an online voter registration system that allows voters to submit applications with electronic signatures. Advocates and elected officials had also tried to push the Legislature to approve automatic voter registration for the state, but to no avail.

Ethics
Though the governor had proposed several government ethics reforms in his executive budget proposal, barely any made it into the enacted budget. The proposals included mandated disclosure of tax returns by candidates for elected office, expanding the state’s Freedom of Information Law to the state Legislature (it currently covers the executive branch), banning state employees from volunteering on their employers’ election campaigns, and a “Lobbying Code of Conduct” to penalize violations of lobbying laws among other lobbying restrictions.

But the only proposal that was approved was one that prohibits lobbyists, political action committees, labor unions, and a person registered as an independent expenditure committee from giving loans to candidates and political committees. What remains to be seen is whether the governor will follow through on a pledge to unilaterally ban those who do not voluntarily follow the code of conduct from lobbying the executive chamber.

‘Clean Contracting’ and Economic Development Accountability
The budget leaves in place weaknesses in state contracting processes that advocates say led to recent pay-to-play scandals, and corruption convictions, in Albany, particularly among officials and donors in Cuomo’s inner circle.

Though Cuomo had proposed several procurement reforms in his executive budget proposal, “Nothing got done in statute,” said Camarda. The governor reached a deal to restore the state comptroller’s pre-audit authority over certain state contracts -- powers stripped in Cuomo’s first year as governor -- but did not give it the backing of law in the budget and legislators do not appear to have fought for it to be in statute.

Cuomo had also expressed support for stronger oversight powers for the state inspector general over SUNY- and CUNY-affiliated nonprofits, which were not passed with the budget. SUNY-affiliated contracts were at the center of a major bid-rigging scandal that led to the corruption conviction last year of Alain Kaloyeros, a former top economic development aide to Cuomo, and prominent donors to Cuomo’s campaign.

The budget does appropriate $500,000 to administratively implement a “database of deals,” which is meant to outline projects receiving state economic development benefits. But the appropriation does not detail whether the database would be created in a way that would make it transparent or easily accessible. Advocates have pushed to make it downloadable and machine-readable for easy analysis. “None of the functionality that we would want to see in a database is specified,” Camarda said. “A bigger problem is there are no requirements as to what information should be included and there are no definitions.”

Cuomo did include a specific provision in the budget that expands his authority over the Public Authorities Control Board, a direct response to the undoing of the deal to bring an Amazon campus to Queens. Cuomo has repeatedly blamed the failure of the deal on the state Senate’s nomination of Amazon-opponent Senator Mike Gianaris to the PACB, which would have final approval of a portion of the subsidies offered to the tech giant. The new budget allows Cuomo to remove a member of the PACB who oversteps, or threatens to overstep their authority.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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In State Budget, More on Voting, Little on Ethics, and Half-Baked Campaign Finance Reform Mon, 01 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Key Issues to Watch as New State Budget is Finalized http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8404-key-issues-to-watch-as-a-new-state-budget-is-finalized http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8404-key-issues-to-watch-as-a-new-state-budget-is-finalized Cuomo state budget briefing

Gov. Cuomo and top aides (photo: governor's office)


The deadline for the state’s 2020 fiscal year budget is midnight on Sunday and state legislators are expected to work through the weekend as they negotiate a variety of thorny issues with Governor Andrew Cuomo, finalizing the details of policies that have been agreed to in principle, fighting over other issues that are less settled, and determining exactly how much to spend on what in the new fiscal year that begins Monday.

Some of the budget bills are already public, with key details emerging, while the final of the series of bills, together commonly referred to as “the budget,” is likely to hold many of the major policy compromises that may come together in the final hours. Some high-profile deals already appear in place, including a ban on plastic bags (with some carve-outs) and an accompanying fee on paper bags. Ultimately, “the budget” will be a long list of compromises on spending, taxing, and policy priorities.

The new budget is expected to come in at roughly $175 billion.

The governor has been touting his top priorities -- congestion pricing, criminal justice reform, and a permanent property tax cap -- but there are a slew of other issues he cares about and those being pushed by the Senate and Assembly majorities, and even with Democratic control of both houses and the governor’s office, it’s hard to predict which ones will be included in the final budget bills.

If the governor does not get his way, he has threatened to let the deadline pass without signing a budget, though legislative leaders have said they’re committed to ensuring they will get it done on time. (The first pay raises for legislators in roughly two decades hang in the balance, though it’s not exactly clear how on time the budget needs to be for those pay raises to stay on track.)

In the mix are also several cost shifts and funding cuts to New York City, which Mayor Bill de Blasio has warned about and is lobbying against. As has been the case over the years, it’s not likely that he’ll be successful in pushing back each and every one.

Cuomo’s Priorities
The governor has made it clear that the Legislature must agree to his three top priorities, without which he says he won’t sign a budget before the deadline. He has been rallying to make the 2 percent cap on annual property tax increases permanent -- the cap is in place in counties outside New York City and will expire next year. He also says he fears that the Legislature will punt on criminal justice reforms -- changes to bail, speedy trial, and open discovery laws -- and believes the budget provides the right pressure to get to a deal, especially on the contentious and complicated details of bail.

On congestion pricing, Cuomo has attempted to corral all the stakeholders, even winning the support of Mayor de Blasio, who had been a long-time opponent of the policy. Like with others, the details must be worked out and there are a variety of stakeholders who want a say. Long-term funding of the MTA is at stake, not to mention trying to reduce traffic in Manhattan.

Cost Shifts to New York City and Education Aid
De Blasio warned in his own preliminary budget proposal in February that the governor’s budget would impose a $600 million burden on the city in cost shifts and cuts to existing programs. A large part of that total stems from $300 million in less-than-expected education funding, with the governor proposing a new school funding formula to reach the poorest schools in the neediest districts. The details of that formula remain a mystery.

Education aid across the state is the largest portion of the budget and always one of the most contentious issues. State legislators, advocates, and local officials always want a larger increase in aid than Cuomo believes is necessary, with data largely supporting the governor. This year, Cuomo is attempting to change the system, but it’s unclear whether legislators will go along, even with tweaks.

Campaign finance and ethics reforms
The governor has called for public financing of elections, aiming to create a system similar to the one currently used in New York City where small dollar contributions are matched with public funds. Despite Democrats in both the state Senate and Assembly having supported legislation in the past to create such a system -- the Assembly has even voted it through its chamber -- there isn’t agreement on a final bill, and the possibility that it will either not make it into the budget or there will be a somewhat vague passage in the budget language that is a commitment to create a system at a later date, perhaps through a new commission.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie recently raised several unfounded and some more legitimate concerns about the proposal and indicated that there weren’t enough votes in his chamber to approve it. But then his chamber had support for a public campaign finance system in its one-house budget resolution. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and her members have been more steadfast in their commitment to campaign finance reform, with several senators loudly pushing for it along with a massive coalition of advocates representing more than 200 organizations across the state.

Some long-sought campaign finance reform did pass earlier this year, with the significant narrowing of the infamous LLC loophole.

Less talked about in the budget debate have been the governor’s proposals to tackle independent expenditures, which includes new disclosure requirements for 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations, as well as Cuomo’s proposal to require any entity that spends at least $500 in a year to register as a lobbyist. Nonprofits, advocates, and activists have pushed back against the ideas, saying the governor is attempting to stifle his critics.

Cuomo has also called for banning campaign contributions from corporations and limited liability companies, and a code of conduct for lobbyists, which Cuomo said he would implement for the executive branch if lawmakers do not approve it. The Legislature has already approved lowering LLC contributions to $5,000, in line with corporate donations.

Advocates have also urged the passage of clean contracting bills that reduce conflicts of interest and prevent corruption in the state’s contract bidding processes. Cuomo has promised unilateral action on creating a so-called ‘database of deals’ which would detail projects receiving state benefits and make them accessible to the public. He’s also proposed strengthening the oversight powers of the comptroller and the state attorney general. It’s unclear if those provisions will also be passed into law.

Voting reforms
Republicans who controlled the state Senate for years were loathe to approve several voting reforms that Democrats repeatedly proposed in vain. This year, advocates were buoyed in their hopes that reforms would sail through. Some already have as the Legislature passed early voting and began the process of amending the state constitution to allow same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee ballots by mail.

The Senate has moved ahead on allowing the use of electronic poll books but there has yet to be a three-way agreement with the Assembly and governor’s office, though there have been rumors that a deal is imminent. There also isn’t consensus on how many days of early voting the state will allow or how much funding the budget will include to implement it locally. It's also unclear if a system of automatic voter registration may be implemented.

Criminal Justice Reforms
The three big reforms that advocates have long called for include banning cash bail and making other changes to pre-trial detention rules to keep far fewer people incarcerated, and implementing speedy trial and open discovery legislation. Cuomo has insisted the proposals must be in the budget and has even that he will “take the blame” for their passage if suburban legislators are worried about approving them.

But there has been pushback against the proposals from the state district attorneys association, other law enforcement, and more conservative legislators. There has also been disagreement among progressive Democrats about where to draw certain lines, including around what discretion judges will have to determine the accused’s “dangerousness.” The Senate and Assembly nearly reached a deal a few weeks ago on the package of bills but it failed at the last minute. Given the focus on these issues, especially from the governor, a deal is likely.

MTA Restructuring, Congestion Pricing, E-Scooters and E-Bikes
Transit issues have been front and center in this year’s budget negotiations with New York City’s subway crisis lending added urgency to the need to find a sustainable revenue source for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Cuomo has made a big push for congestion pricing as one of the main funding sources and has also called for restructuring the MTA board to give him more control, though he already appoints a plurality of board members and its top leadership, and the board rarely, if ever, goes against his wishes.

Though the Legislature seems close to an agreement on a congestion pricing program, which would toll cars entering Manhattan’s Central Business District, the specifics haven’t been ironed out yet, including around exemptions to the fees, changes in bridge tolls, and investments in other MTA branches, like LIRR and Metro North.

Cuomo has also called for the state and New York City to split 50-50 any MTA capital costs that aren't covered by dedicated funding streams. It's unclear if state legislators will allow that language to be part of a final budget deal or if the process around negotiating the MTA capital budget will be left to a later date as it typically is.

Speaker Heastie indicated the Assembly is willing to advance the proposal in principle while Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has been less definitive. The governor’s proposals for the MTA’s structure also remain uncertain.

The governor has also proposed allowing municipalities to legalize the use of electronic scooters and bicycles, and big firms that offer those services have been expending significant resources lobbying state lawmakers, regulators and the governor’s office to push that policy through. Legalization would be particularly impactful in New York City, where the NYPD and Mayor de Blasio are facing criticism from the City Council and advocates over a crackdown on e-bike use that has been particularly impactful on immigrant delivery workers.   

Marijuana Legalization
Cuomo has proposed legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults, which the state estimates would raise about $300 million in revenue annually. He had hoped to use that revenue to fill the MTA’s budget gaps.

But earlier this month, Cuomo raised doubts about whether marijuana legalization would be included in the state budget and said if it was not, then it most likely would not happen at all this year. However, the Assembly and Senate leaders have indicated that they are willing to advance it. As the budget negotiations moved ahead, it appeared a marijuana legalization deal would not come together in the budget, but nothing at all in play is ever fully in or out until the budget is done.

Census Funding
The New York Counts 2020 coalition of nonprofit organizations, business groups, and community service providers have been pushing the state to include at least $40 million in the budget to fund outreach efforts for the decennial population count next year. This census, where New York has a great deal on the line in terms of congressional representation and federal funds, will be particularly challenging, with the federal government underfunding the Census Bureau and primarily relying on a digital methodology, which is a departure from previous years, not to mention the push for a citizenship question.

New York already faces its own unique issues with reaching hard-to-count communities, particularly because of the state’s large immigrant population, much of which is concentrated in New York City. And though the state created a commission to examine the issues around the Census, it was not named until after its initial deadline for submitting a report had already lapsed. That report is not expected until after the budget. Indications on Thursday, including from the city’s Census leader, Julie Menin, pointed to the $40 million being included in the state budget, but that had not been finalized.

Education Aid, Mayoral Control and Charter Cap
In past years, Governor Cuomo and Senate Republicans repeatedly dangled mayoral control of New York City schools over Mayor de Blasio to extract concessions such as increasing funding for charter schools and more transparency from the Department of Education. This year was less contentious but Democratic legislators still wanted adjustments to approve an extension.

The mayor is expected to receive a three-year extension on mayoral control, up from a two-year renewal last time and multiple single years before that, but will nonetheless have to commit to certain demands made by legislators from his own party, including improvements in parent engagement.

New York City this year reached a statutory cap on the number of charter schools in the five boroughs, which Cuomo and Republicans had increased in previous legislative sessions. Charter school advocates have continued to push for eliminating or increasing the cap but lack powerful allies in the Legislature. If there is an increase in the charter cap snuck into the budget, it will all but certainly be because Cuomo made it a priority.

Cuomo proposed an increase of several hundred million dollars in education funding, for a total of $27.7 billion, and spoke of a new “Education Equity” formula to replace the Foundation Aid formula currently used to provide additional funding to school districts. But he hasn’t released details of the proposal, which the state education department is meant to outline. That has incensed education advocates and New York City elected officials who say the governor is not living up to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court decision which would means billions more in education funding. The two legislative majorities outlined increases in education aid of more than $1 billion in total, with the final number likely somewhere between theirs and Cuomo's.

Revenue Raisers and Taxes
Besides congestion pricing, budget negotiations have also involved other possible revenue raising measures including a pied-a-terre tax, a real estate transfer tax, an internet sales tax, and the extension of the state’s so-called millionaires tax.

After talks of marijuana legalization seemed to stall, the Senate had floated the idea of a pied-a-terre tax on people’s second homes worth more than $5 million in New York City to replace the revenue that would have come in for the MTA from marijuana taxes. The pied-a-terre tax could raise an estimated $650 million each year. Cuomo was on board with the proposal as well, but the Assembly shot down the idea, citing difficulties in navigating the complicated property tax system in the city. Speaker Heastie said instead that the state should do a simpler one-time tax on expensive real estate transfers above $5 million. The discussion appeared to stall.

Cuomo has additionally proposed eliminating a loophole that allows third-party online retailers to avoid collecting sales taxes -- which could bring in nearly $400 million in revenue.

On the millionaires tax, there reportedly seems to be three-way agreement on a five-year extension of the current rates, though an Assembly proposal to increase the tax, and the number of people it applies to, did not get much support.

A previously-scheduled middle class tax cut appears to be staying as designed.

Healthcare and Medicaid
Cuomo had proposed as much as $550 million in additional state Medicaid funding in his budget proposal but he pulled back in February as the prospect of federal cuts to healthcare loomed and tax revenues came in lower than expected. Both the Assembly and Senate pushed to restore that funding and Cuomo appeared to backtrack.  

Environmental Policy
After he and the Legislature overrode a New York City law to impose a fee on single-use plastic and paper bags at retail stores two years ago, Cuomo introduced legislation last year to pursue a statewide plastic bag ban. The bill failed in the Republican-led state Senate but Cuomo reintroduced the proposal this year and it appears on the verge of passage, with a variety of carve-outs and other specifications, like a fee on paper bags and opt-out provisions for localities. Legislative leaders indicated on Wednesday that they had reached an agreement on the bill and that it will likely be passed with the budget.

There’s also a concerted effort this year by environmental advocates to advance the Climate and Community Protection Act, which would transition the entire state economy to renewable sources of energy by 2050. The bill has passed in the Assembly three years in a row but there isn’t consensus this year with the governor’s office or the Senate. Cuomo introduced his own Climate Leadership Act, which is similar in ways to the CCPA but would only mandate that the state’s electricity sector be renewable by 2040. Advocates say his proposal doesn’t go far enough and it’s hard to see what compromise he may reach with the Legislature. This legislation has been little discussed by Cuomo or legislative leaders as the budget deadline approaches.

Pay Raises
If the state Legislature fails to pass an on-time budget, which would technically mean by the April 1 deadline, senators and Assembly members will lose out on a $10,000 annual raise (from $110,000 to $120,000) in their base pay which is meant to go into effect on January 1, 2020. The raises were put into motion by a state commission last year, which set a schedule to bump up legislator salaries over a three-year period. The raises also apply to the comptroller, state attorney general and certain state agency commissioners. Cuomo has seemed to use the raises as leverage over the Legislature to ensure that the budget is not late and that it includes his priorities.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Key Issues to Watch as New State Budget is Finalized Thu, 28 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
For Real Democracy, Demand Small Donor Matching for New York State Elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8388-demand-small-donor-matching-for-new-york-state-elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8388-demand-small-donor-matching-for-new-york-state-elections govandcuomo votes

(photo: governor's office)


Eighty percent of New Yorkers voted to fortify the way campaigns are financed in New York City through question 1 on the November 2018 ballot. Limiting big money in our local elections clearly resonated with voters, who agreed to increase the public matching dollar amount in the city and reduce individual contribution limits.

And for good reason! Big donations from real estate companies, healthcare corporations and Wall Street can quickly add up and drown out the power from everyday voters on decisions that we care about most like rent stabilization, public school funding, and affordable healthcare.

Today, government leaders in Albany are deciding whether to institute and fund a public matching system at the state level. It’s timely and necessary. The Senate has blocked the reform for years. Now the state Legislature finally has the opportunity to enact real change, but politicians are backtracking. We have just a few days to convince them -- a new budget is due by April 1.

Our system is skewed toward big donors and special interests. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, in New York state elections in 2018, “the top 100 donors gave more to candidates than all of the estimated 137,000 small donors combined.” That’s a tiny, very wealthy fraction of the voting public that isn’t representative of you or me gaining too much influence.

As it has in New York City, small donor matching would enable candidates for state elections to opt into a program that puts limits on large donations but matches small ones. The policy on the table for the state would see the first $175 of each individual’s donations matched at a 6-to-1 rate. With small donor matching, your $10 contribution becomes $70. This reform puts everyday people on the same playing field as the big donors and ensures that our voices are heard over corporations and special interests.

After years of that system, New York City voters just approved increases to $250 and 8-to-1 while lowering the contribution limits.

We’ve had small donor matching in New York City for 30 years, and the population funding city campaigns looks more like the city itself than the group contributing to the legislators who represent the city in Albany. Per the Brennan Center’s analysis, “almost 90 percent of the city’s census block groups were home to someone — and often, many people — who gave $175 or less to a City Council candidate in 2009. By contrast, the small donors in the 2010 State Assembly elections came from only 30 percent of the city’s census block groups.”

And candidates who are elected in this manner may be more likely to create and pass legislation that is representative of their small-donor constituents. For example, after Connecticut passed its Citizens’ Election Program, legislators from the new cohort of small-donor-supported candidates passed a paid sick leave law that had been blocked by special interests for years.

If you believe that corporations and special interest groups shouldn’t be allowed to buy elections, tell your Assembly Member and State Senator that you want small donor matching included in this year’s budget. And do it now!

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Teri Hagedorn is a volunteer for the New York chapter of Represent Us.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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For Real Democracy, Demand Small Donor Matching for New York State Elections Tue, 26 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
State Leaders Must Follow Through on Their Promise of a More Fair New York http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8390-state-leaders-must-follow-through-on-their-promise-of-a-more-fair-new-york http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8390-state-leaders-must-follow-through-on-their-promise-of-a-more-fair-new-york got ga si gov

(photo: Governor's office)


As we near the final days of state budget negotiations, a familiar anxiety is growing as advocacy groups and everyday New Yorkers await the fate of critical policy and funding decisions.

Despite a fast start to the legislative session and optimism abounding from a Democratic trifecta that seemed focused and committed to delivering on campaign promises, the realities of the same-old behind-closed-doors budget process are setting in ahead of the April 1 deadline.

For far too long, the state budget has contributed to growing inequality and deteriorating services across the state. While state budgets tread water or move us backwards, the continuing “strength” of the economy has further tipped to the wealthiest among us.

The recently re-elected Governor and newly-elected members of the Assembly and the Senate ran on the promise to chart a new course.

Make no mistake: It is THAT vision of a fairer, cleaner, kinder, and more equitable New York that helped take down the Independent Democratic Conference, strengthen the Democratic majority in the Assembly, and elect 39 Democratic Senators for a new majority that voted to put Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins into her rightful place as the leader of the Senate.

Grassroots organizations like ours, Empire State Indivisible, have spent the first three months of 2019 in the streets organizing in support of that vision. But strangely it’s now many of these same elected officials who are pushing back against the fight for fairness and democracy.

Exhibit A: the continued resistance from many members of the Assembly to finally pass through both houses legislation for publicly-funded elections.

For years, the Assembly championed this issue: 88 current members are on the record for past support. Yet, now that there’s a viable path to passage, many of those former champions now claim there are too many open questions.

Grassroots organizers across the state have reported consistent questioning from many of their electeds like “how would the program be implemented?”, “what would be the model of oversight?”, and “where would the funds come from?”  

It turns out these reasonable questions already have incredibly thoughtful and effective answers. Organizations like Citizen Action and the Brennan Center for Justice have been bending over backwards to work with the conferences in the Senate and the Assembly to answer the questions and make the legislation as effective as possible. It’s disingenuous to claim that last-minute questions are the reason support for the measure is lacking.  

The fact is that our elected officials are sent to Albany to solve complicated problems with conviction.

They are the ones responsible to design policies that solve the challenges New York faces.  The irony of elected officials refusing to participate in the process of crafting the details of policy they claim to support is lost on no one.

Exhibit B: skittishness among many lawmakers on establishing fair tax and fiscal policies.

Governor Cuomo’s budget proposals consistently create a battle for funds amongst the most critical services. His penchant for “horse trading” (as many insiders refer to it) pits public school funding against healthcare spending, support of clean energy and municipal infrastructure projects against investments in affordable housing, and so on and so on.

We and many other New Yorkers have been asking legislators about increasing revenue through new fair-share tax proposals like the “ultra millionaires tax,” which extends the current millionaires tax and adds brackets for people whose annual income exceeds $5million, $10 million, and $100 million.  

Too often, the answers have been truly dismissive and patronizing -- particularly from the new Senate majority and the Governor. The pushback is a status-quo run-around: lawmakers fear that raising taxes -- even on multimillionaires and billionaires who got huge new tax breaks from President Trump --  might cause them to lose elections in 2020.

The numbers and the polling suggests otherwise.

Insisting that the ultra-rich pay their fair share of a burden that has for too long been shouldered by the poor, the middle class, and the upper middle class will in fact be answering to the will of the people. It will allow all the members of the Democratic majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate and the Governor to deliver on the promises that galvanized voters to elect such a strong slate of Democrats in the first place -- and will inspire us to do so again.

The ask is simple: No more excuses. We simply can’t afford them.

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Ricky Silver is co-lead organizer of Empire State Indivisible. On Twitter @es_indivisible.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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State Leaders Must Follow Through on Their Promise of a More Fair New York Mon, 25 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Rep. Nydia Velázquez: My Campaign Finance Pledge http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8360-rep-velazquez-my-campaign-finance-pledge http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8360-rep-velazquez-my-campaign-finance-pledge city council reyna puente cm

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (photo: William Alatriste/NY City Council)


When I first ran for Congress, I faced what observers said were impossible odds. No Puerto Rican woman had ever served in Congress, the incumbent was sitting on a $2 million war chest, and I was taking on a powerful party machine determined to stop me. Yet, I won.

What guided me in that first race, and every election since, has been my neighbors’ voices, which I have continued to rely on—from town halls to street corners to knocking on doors. My opponent back then spent close to $6 million in today’s dollars, much of it coming from big corporate backers, but it couldn’t outweigh the importance of person-to-person conversations with real voters in our community.

Like anyone running for office, I’ve had to raise money over the years, but I’ve always prioritized community organizing and constituent contact over fundraising. While it has long been apparent that our campaign finance system is far from ideal, its problems have grown exponentially worse since Citizens United. That ruling set the stage for an unprecedented influx of corporate money in our political system. It also helped undermine our national political culture. The sheer volume of money aimed at influencing electoral outcomes has bred a degree of distrust among voters more severe than I can ever recall since entering public life.

This growing cynicism is bad for our city and our nation. Over the long term, I worry that corrosion of voters’ trust in government threatens our democracy’s health, weakens our civic institutions, and makes policy-making worse.

For these reasons, I have made the decision starting this year to stop taking corporate PAC money. What was true before, will be transparent forevermore: the decisions I make and the work I do is on behalf of New York’s working families; not those with a corporate ledger.  

It is my belief that we are in a unique moment in our political history, making this decision the appropriate step for my campaign, right now. I am proud to join the many Democrats elected in 2018 who have already taken this pledge. Over half (36 of 62) of the Democrats newly elected to Congress last year have committed to do this, but only seven returning incumbents have joined them so far. That needs to change—and as a longtime progressive leader in Congress, I hope others will join this call.

In my fights for progressive values here in New York, I have been blessed to build community support for allies who have taken similar steps. In 2013, again facing a predatory party boss, we elected a slate of reformers to the City Council who stood against big-moneyed special interests. In 2018, we took on corporate-backed Democrats who sided with Republicans and real estate interests to elect a crop of reformers to the New York State Senate.

Throughout my time in public office, I have always taken on entrenched interests, whether it is party bosses trying to impose a chokehold on local politics or big companies seeking to undermine environmental and consumer safeguards or profit off the sick and the vulnerable. My commitment to those core values has not and never will waver. But, it is my hope that no longer accepting corporate PAC money will send a powerful message to my constituents and my Congressional colleagues that the time for additional change has come.

Make no mistake: curing what plagues our political system will require more than elected officials foregoing corporate PAC money. That’s just one piece in a complicated puzzle. For instance, I will also push for the passage of a statewide public campaign finance system in New York that bans corporate money and emphasizes small-dollar, individual contributions.

Another problem: since Citizens United, so-called Super PACs injected more than $1 billion into federal elections in 2016 alone, without meaningful transparency. Fixing that problem will almost certainly require legislation. Likewise, we need to be working at both the state and federal levels to reduce voting obstacles. Faith in government didn’t erode overnight and won’t be immediately fixed either. Nonetheless, greater transparency in campaign finance and boosting voter participation can help. Those goals will require more work, but they are certainly worth pursuing.

For now, turning away corporate PAC dollars is the right decision for me, my campaign, my community and, most of all my constituents. Ultimately, we are elected to lead and, as more members of Congress follow suit, this can be a modest, but meaningful step toward restoring trust in public service.

***
Rep. Nydia Velázquez represents parts of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens in Congress. On Twitter @ReElectNydia.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Rep. Nydia Velázquez: My Campaign Finance Pledge Sun, 24 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Advocates and Senators Refute Assembly Democrats' Concerns with Campaign Finance Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8376-advocates-and-senators-refute-assembly-democrats-concerns-with-campaign-finance-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8376-advocates-and-senators-refute-assembly-democrats-concerns-with-campaign-finance-reform myrie camp fin

Senate Democrats push campaign finance reform (photo: @zellnor4ny)


With less than two weeks until a new state budget is due, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature have yet to come to an agreement on a public campaign financing model for state elections. But the conversation around the measure, which advocates and experts say is a long-due reform in a state beset with repeated corruption scandals, has taken a turn since Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie raised several doubts about the viability of public campaign financing, some of which Cuomo has echoed.

They’ve voiced these concerns despite the fact that the Democrat-led Assembly and Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, have annually supported such campaign finance reform and Cuomo included a plan in his 2020 executive budget proposal. This is the first year in Cuomo’s tenure that Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, having won a Senate majority in November.

At a Wednesday hearing of the state Senate’s Committee on Elections, which was also attended by several Assembly members, experts and advocates sought to rebut those concerns as they pressed legislators to act sooner rather than later.

Earlier this month, Heastie said there weren’t enough votes in his chamber for the public financing proposal, which would create a voluntary system with significantly lower individual contribution limits and public matching of the first $175 of all qualifying contributions at a 6-to-1 ratio.

Heastie cited mostly debunked concerns about independent expenditures being able overwhelm candidate campaigns , large budget gaps the state is facing, and criticisms of the public financing model used by New York City, which the state is looking to emulate in principle, particularly the regulatory aspects.

The Assembly did end up including a statement of support for the proposal in its one-house budget resolution last week, but without specific details. In a March 15 interview on New York Now, Heastie denied that he and his members were getting “cold feet.” He pointed to the city’s public funds program, which caps spending for participants, and said independent expenditures could dominate, while inaccurately saying that IEs are not an issue in New York City elections.

“I think that no one wants to exclude everyday individuals from participating in democracy. We think it’s a good thing but people also have to understand you don’t want to open the door to having IEs pretty much pick your legislator,” he said. He also questioned how the system would work with fusion voting, which allows candidates to run on multiple party lines, though the city’s has not encountered this as an issue and the state program would emulate that a candidate receives matching funds only based on their fundraising, no matter how many ballot lines they have.

Cuomo has raised similar concerns about independent expenditures and fusion voting, though he insisted recently that public financing must be included in the state budget.

“How many races are we potentially talking about? How much does it cost? Who's doing the compliance on all these issues? The Board of Elections - which has nowhere near this capacity now? What is the effect of the multiple lines and multiple races? Do you fund all those multiple lines in the primary and then all those multiple lines in the general? So it's necessary, it's right, but it's complicated,” Cuomo said at a news conference outlining his budget priorities on March 11. He did, however, mention the possibility that the Legislature could pass a budget that includes general support for and legalization of public campaign financing and then “figure out the details afterwards” in the post-budget session.

The Senate’s one-house resolution supports “establishing a publicly financed small donor matching system in order to curtail the corrosive influence of money in politics in addition to other necessary campaign finance reforms.” Unlike their Assembly counterparts, senators have not equivocated about implementing the system. Senator Zellnor Myrie, chair of the elections committee, is an ardent supporter of the proposal and, prior to the hearing on Monday, he led a news conference with several colleagues, including many fellow newly elected senators, and government reform advocates to push for it.

“We should be listening to the everyday New Yorker and not big donors,” Myrie said at the news conference, where he was joined by Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Rachel May, Brad Hoylman, Brian Kavanaugh, Todd Kaminsky, Julia Salazar, David Carlucci, Jessica Ramos, John Liu, Andrew Gounardes, and Gustavo Rivera, as well as Assembly members. Myrie also brushed aside questions about funding the program. “To me, this is not a cost, this is an investment. It is an investment in the integrity of our democracy and I think not until people have trust in their government will they trust the process.”.

For government reform advocates, campaign finance experts, and some legislators, the concerns expressed by Heastie, and to a lesser extent Cuomo, are broadly unfounded.

For one, the governor’s proposal does not limit candidate spending like New York City’s program, and also does not cap fundraising from private sources, which together would blunt the effect of independent expenditure campaigns while boosting the impact of small donors.

Additionally, as the Brennan Center for Justice’s Lawrence Norden noted, concerns about the program becoming exorbitantly expensive because of fusion voting “reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the policy works.” Candidates in New York City already run on multiple party lines but public funds are not disbursed for each party but rather for each candidate. “The number of parties on the ballot is irrelevant to all of this. And a candidate doesn’t get more money because she’s listed on more than one ballot line,” Norden wrote.

There are indeed some logistical concerns with instituting public financing statewide, which legislators raised at Wednesday’s hearing.

New York City’s program is administered by the New York City Campaign Finance Board (NYCCFB), an independent, nonpartisan agency, and the state BOE lacks the resources or expertise to do that kind of work, as Cuomo indicated. City candidates, some of whom are now sitting legislators, have also critiqued what they see as the CFB’s overly punitive policies, which they say lead to yearslong audits and burdensome fines for relatively minor violations. Lawmakers also worry that public funds could entice candidates to run frivolous campaigns to raise their own profiles or to otherwise accrue some private benefit.

Those arguments were also repeatedly refuted by individuals testifying before the committee on Wednesday in Albany, though many did acknowledge that New York City’s program is far from perfect.  

Amy Loprest, executive director of the NYCCFB, and Rick Schaffer, chair of the Board, noted that the city’s disclosure laws around independent expenditures are stronger than the federal government’s, and that candidates in local races have prevailed despite facing massive independent expenditures campaigns.

Loprest also argued that the system has thresholds that preclude candidates from abusing it for personal gain, though any assessment of the issue is subjective. Candidates must show a level of community support that validates their campaign, she said, and their spending is strictly audited after the election to ensure public funds are not misused. “We are always improving our system and that was built into the law,” Loprest said, when Assemblymember Robert Carroll, a Brooklyn Democrat, asked how the city balances monitoring of both independent expenditures and complaints from candidates about “picayune problems.”

Schaffer also insisted that the CFB has taken efforts to aid candidates and to prevent them from making mistakes that could end up costing them later. “We’re not interested in ‘gotcha.’ Our job is to help candidates follow the rules which admittedly are complex because it’s a complex system,” he said. The CFB’s audit processes, Loprest noted, are also being consistently improved to ensure candidates do not have to wait years for results.

But Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, a Manhattan Democrat, seemed unconvinced, particularly when considering that audits of every campaign at the state level -- four statewide races and 213 state legislative races -- would be a monumental task. State Board of Elections officials did downplay that worry later in the hearing, noting that the governor’s proposal only calls for fully auditing all statewide campaigns but not every legislative one, instead using a random sampling.

The State BOE has not taken a formal position on the program but at least two commissioners, a Democrat and a Republican, support its implementation. Other commissioners have insisted that if the program is passed, it should be accompanied with sufficient funding and that it should first go into effect after the 2022 elections, the next statewide cycle.

A state program, said BOE co-executive director Robert Brehm, would be about 3.67 times larger than New York City’s and would cost between $20-$60 million each year in administrative costs if fully scaled. According to a December 2018 report from the Washington D.C.-based Campaign Finance Institute, the program would disburse about $140.5 million in public funds over a four-year election cycle. For context, the governor’s state budget proposal for 2020 is about $175.1 billion.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Chisun Lee, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center pointed out the importance of establishing a public financing program. She noted that in last year’s election, 100 donors gave more to candidates than 137,000 small donors altogether, and small donations only accounted for 5 percent of all contributions to state campaigns. She cited the example of other jurisdictions with public financing programs, such as Connecticut, and said the state should create a culture of assistance rather than punishment at any entity charged with overseeing its implementation.

And though she admitted that the governor’s proposal is not flawless, “In great part...it is a workable, effective small donor matching system,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Advocates and Senators Refute Assembly Democrats' Concerns with Campaign Finance Reform Wed, 20 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Public Financing of Elections is a Matter of Racial Justice http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8370-public-financing-of-elections-is-a-matter-of-racial-justice http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8370-public-financing-of-elections-is-a-matter-of-racial-justice public financing cuomo

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


“Black humanity and dignity requires Black political will and power. Despite constant exploitation and perpetual oppression, Black people have bravely and brilliantly been the driving force pushing the U.S. towards the ideals it articulates but has never achieved. In recent years we have taken to the streets, launched massive campaigns, and impacted elections, but our elected leaders have failed to address the legitimate demands of our Movement. We can no longer wait.”

Those words launch the policy platform that more than 50 organizations that make up the Movement For Black Lives policy table signed onto last year.

A key component of this policy platform is public financing of elections -- because we know that we can’t truly build Black political power and combat racism and oppression if wealthy donors continue to hold outsized influence.

While Black representatives may be gaining in number and power, without systemic campaign finance reforms these gains will be fleeting. This is true here in New York, where we celebrate a historic occurrence -- leaders of both chambers in the state Legislature are Black: Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

To get true democracy -- especially for historically oppressed people -- you need to have fair elections. That includes both public financing and easier access to the polls.

It’s time for New York to become the leader in campaign finance reform. All three top leaders in New York State government (Stewart-Cousins, Heastie, and Governor Andrew Cuomo) -- along with the majority of sitting Senators and Assembly members -- have long supported this important reform that would give public matching funds to candidates who raise small-dollar donations from average New Yorkers. With “fair elections” legislation in place, elections would no longer be funded primarily by wealthy, white donors.

New York, under “fair elections,” would be more likely to prioritize the needs of poor and working class New Yorkers, including poor and working class Black people.

The current situation is stacked against us. All too often the donors that are funding campaigns in New York have very different needs than the working families that make up a majority of a politician’s constituency. When implemented, these campaign finance reforms -- and specifically, a small dollar matching system -- can bring more and continued diversity to New York State’s candidate and donor pools and improve responsiveness to and accountability with voters.

It’s no secret that our country has a legacy of racism and has systematically disenfranchised Black people through our political system — whether through mass incarceration or voter suppression laws. But campaign finance plays a similar, if more hidden, role. The dominance of big money in our politics makes it much harder for poor and working-class Black people to express political power and effectively advocate for their interests. For too long the power and wealth in our country -- and in our state -- is consolidated to a very small, very white population and the Black community has been left behind.

New York’s Legislature, now with all-Black legislative leadership, shows that change is possible, but we can’t rest until we change the system for the long-term. For such a progressive state, New York has some of the worst campaign finance rules in the country. Yet finally, with progressives in both houses of the Legislature and a governor who wants to change them, New York campaign finance laws could, should, and must quickly change to make sure everyone's voice is heard -- even if you don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to donate.

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Monifa Bandele & Richard Wallace are on the Leadership Team of the Movement for Black Lives Policy Table.

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Public Financing of Elections is a Matter of Racial Justice Tue, 19 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000