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Amid Controversy, City Council Moves Ahead with Campaign Finance Bill Extending Public Match

committee gov op

Council Members Yeger, left, and Cabrera, right (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Significantly more public funding of political campaigns appears on the way given legislation that the City Council Committee on Governmental Operations passed on Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, aims to prevent corruption and increase engagement with local communities by adjusting the public matching funds system to allow candidates to raise only relatively small donations and receive enough public money to reach the spending limit in their race.

Though the bill has over 30 sponsors in the 51-seat Council and passed the committee 4-1 on Tuesday, a last-minute amendment to the legislation caused a significant stir, including accusations of impropriety by Comptroller Scott Stringer against City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, both likely mayoral candidates in the next election.

Expected to be passed by the full Council on Thursday, the bill lifts the cap on how much public funding – or taxpayer money – a participating campaign can receive from Campaign Finance Board. The cap, currently set at 75 percent of the spending limit for participating candidates, would rise to 89.9%, effectively making it a full match relative to the spending limit when the private funds involved are also taken into consideration.

The city’s campaign finance system currently has two tracks, “Option A” and “Option B,” that only apply to the 2021 election cycle, before the newer of the two programs takes full hold. That program, “Option A,” includes lower individual donation thresholds and matches the first $250 of individual contributions at an 8-to-1 ratio for a maximum disbursement of $2,000 in public funds per contribution.

These rules are the result of a November 2018 referendum that both raised the disbursement cap and increased the public matching ratio. But it also left in place the old system, which has much higher contribution limits and matches the first $175 of donations at 6-to-1.

Different offices, from citywide posts like mayor and comptroller to borough presidencies to City Council seats, have different donation and spending limits.

The change to individual contribution limits in Option A dropped the maximum donation limit from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide candidates who opt into that program.

Related to that new donation cap, an amendment to the legislation being passed this week has caused a rift among mayoral candidates and raised eyebrows around city government.

The amendment requires candidates who opt into the new system to return contributions from 2018 that go over the new maximums, which could mean a $3,100 return on each maximum donation for participants.

The November referendum allowed candidates participating in the system to choose between the new rules – with the higher public match but lower contribution limits – and the old rules until 2022, when candidates will have to conform entirely to the new rules to receive public funds. The 2021 city elections are expected to be highly competitive, crowded affairs, with almost all city seats open due to term limits.

Comptroller Scott Stringer, one of several likely mayoral candidates in the upcoming election, would be particularly impacted by the amendment. He’d have to return many thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the past year if he wanted to opt into the new matching system. As first reported by the Daily News, Stringer viewed this amendment as a “brazen power grab” by fellow mayoral candidate and Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

“The voters passed a groundbreaking campaign finance system to clean up government, not corrupt it,” a Stringer spokesperson said. “Speaker Johnson is trying to circumvent the will of the voters and change the rules to benefit himself. The Council should reject his brazen power grab.”

A spokesperson for Johnson reiterated that it’s optional for candidates to return their contributions and said that the amendment was created at the recommendation of the CFB.

“The changes were made at the strong urging of the CFB. Both because of fairness and administrative efficiency,” Jennifer Femino, a spokesperson for Johnson, said. “That said, no contributions made in a prior election cycle will have to be returned. Any candidate who wants to keep their big money donations from the last cycle is free to do so and maintain their edge over the competition.”

Council Member Kallos stressed to Gotham Gazette that not only did the CFB recommend retroactivity because it would then make administration of the program easier, but that Kallos led an extended conversation on changing the bill to include retroactivity during the initial April hearing on the legislation. The amendment wasn’t made until just days before the committee vote, however.

On Tuesday, governmental operations committee member, Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat, referenced the Stringer-Johnson rift during the hearing, though he didn’t name either of them. He said he was “certainly sensitive to the concerns that have been raised amongst those who are current candidates that feel this bill has a negative impact on them,” but remained supportive of the bill and voted yes.

There was opposition to the bill at the hearing, from City Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat. He said it disregards what the voters decided with the 2018 referendum and amounts to little besides another big dip into taxpayers’ pockets.

“It doesn’t seem to me that when the voters voted in November, they put an asterisk next to their vote and said, ‘Hey, this is what we’re voting for, but just in case you get a chance, take some more money out of our pockets and do this a little better,’” Yeger said. “I don’t think we got that message. I didn’t get that message, that’s not what I heard. What I heard was, there was a yes/no question, and the yes won.”

Yeger was the sole no in the 4-1 vote, with Council Members Kallos, Powers, Alan Maisel, and committee chair Fernando Cabrera voting to approve. Two committee members were absent from the vote: Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez and Bill Perkins.

The bill now goes to the full Council for a vote on Thursday. If it passes there, it will go to Mayor Bill de Blasio for likely approval.

by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Spirited Discussion Anticipated as Charter Revision Commission Finalizes Ballot Proposals

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(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

The 2019 Charter Revision Commission is set to hold one, perhaps two, public meetings to decide on what changes to city governance and elections it will propose to New Yorkers on the November ballot. The first of the potentially two meetings will be Wednesday night at City Hall, where the 15 commissioners, appointed by various local elected officials, will attempt to agree on which proposals to instruct staff to craft ballot questions around.

They are mostly working off of the “preliminary staff report,” published in late April, that narrowed the field of considerations after a series of public and private commission meetings.

But there remain several areas of disagreement, and one commissioner, former City Council Member Sal Albanese, says there’s likely to be spirited debate to hammer out the selection of the final proposals, and the commission may very well need both potential meetings, the second of which would be next week.

One proposal -- ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting -- is very likely to make it onto the ballot, Albanese said, nearly confirming what has been apparent as the commission has done its work over the past nine months.

The 2019 Commission was the first ever created through legislation in the New York City Council. Past commissions have been convened by successive mayors, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who empanelled his own commission in 2018. The mayor’s commission placed three proposals on last year’s November election ballot to expand the city’s campaign finance program, to impose term limits on community board members, and to create a citywide Civic Engagement Commission. All three proposals were overwhelmingly approved by voters.

The mayor’s commission received testimony broadly in support of ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to choose candidates in order of preference. If no candidate crosses a required threshold (say 40 or 50 percent) to claim victory after all ‘first preference’ votes are counted, then the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated and their voters’ second choices are awarded the votes, a process repeated until a winner is crowned.

The system is meant to eliminate costly and laborious runoffs with low turnout, like the ones held for public advocate in 2009 and 2013. But the commission punted on the issue, saying it needed more time to study it, and urged any future commissions to take it up.

The Council-created commission, first spearheaded by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and then-Public Advocate Letitia James, includes appointees from the mayor, Council, and borough presidents. It has worked with a longer timeline than de Blasio’s commission and has spent months delving into complicated issues around city governance, land use and planning, budgeting, police accountability, voting, campaign finance, and more. Ranked-choice voting was one of the issues to which it has paid significant attention.

When the commission released its preliminary staff report in April with detailed recommendations for possible amendments to the City Charter culled from the four focus areas that informed the commission’s public hearings: elections, governance, finance, and land use, there were also several proposals categorized as best left off of future consideration.

The 80-page report narrowed down more than 300 proposals that the commission heard, and made two dozen recommendations to the commissioners. It’s not likely that all of those proposals will advance.

At Wednesday’s hearing (and potentially the second one), the commissioners will determine what will be included in the final report as ballot questions. The commission will then pass a resolution to direct staff to prepare the report, which will then have to be approved by a majority of the commissioners. 

Since the preliminary staff report was released, the commission has also held another round of public hearings, one in each borough. The Manhattan hearing focused primarily on the city’s land use process, city planning, and neighborhood rezonings. The staff report had recommended consideration of giving borough presidents and community boards a slightly greater say in how land use rezonings are approved, and had also suggested creating a more coherent process of long-term planning for the city by combining several disparate processes and planning-related documents -- but the staff did not recommend further consideration of possibly suggestion the requirement of a comprehensive city plan, something a coalition of advocates and elected officials has pushed.

The measures the staff did recommend advancing received general support from the public, members of community boards, and from elected officials. There was also testimony in support of ranked-choice voting, creating a rainy day fund for city budgeting, and creating chief diversity officers (a proposal spearheaded by Comptroller Scott Stringer) at city agencies under one new CDO in the mayor’s office.

The hearing in the Bronx also saw support for ranked-choice voting and land use reform, but most of those who testified came out to push for strengthening the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent city entity that monitors and investigates complaints of abuse of power and misconduct by police officers. Some called for a popularly elected CCRB, instead of the current structure where CCRB members are appointed by elected officials, mostly the mayor.

The commission is set to meet Wednesday, JUne 12, to debate the final proposals, and has tentatively planned to hold another hearing on June 18. JoAnne Wasserman, a spokesperson for the commission, said the chair, Gail Benjamin, was unlikely to comment prior to the Wednesday meeting.

“I’m expecting two meetings because I believe that there’ll be extensive debate on a number of issues,” said Albanese in a phone interview, arguing that two hearings would also allow the public to gain a better understanding of how the commissioners will arrive at their final vote.  

“I think one of the areas that we seem to have general consensus on is ranked-choice voting,” he added. Though he said there might be debate on how it should be implemented -- whether it applies to primary and special elections or general elections as well, and for which offices -- he was certain that it would be included in some form as a ballot question.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a good government group, was glad the commission appears to be moving ahead on ranked-choice voting. “Establishing ranked-choice voting for primary and special elections could be very significant,” he said in a brief phone interview, “if it was done for all offices.”

The commission may also look at additional ballot proposals that weren’t included in the preliminary staff proposals.

“The report that the staff put together is not necessarily going to be abided by,” said Albanese, the commission appointee of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams in part for Albanese’s campaign finance reform advocacy, noting that the preliminary staff report is not “the final word” and the commissioners have the authority to go beyond it. For his turn, he intends to continue pushing for a five-year ban on lobbying for all former elected officials and for “democracy vouchers,” which would transform the city’s campaign finance program by giving all New Yorkers an equitable amount of money to donate to campaigns.

He said, though, that the elected CCRB proposal seems certain to fail. “It’s not that it’s controversial, I think a lot of people think it’s just not workable,” he said. “I could be wrong but that’s the consensus that I hear across my conversations with other commissioners.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Expected to Pass Bill - with Controversial Amendment - Raising Cap on Public Matching Funds for Campaigns

Ben Kallos City Council

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

A City Council committee is expected on Tuesday to pass a bill aimed at reducing the influence of large donors on New York City candidates and elections by creating the possibility for candidates to essentially raise all smaller donations and earn enough public matching funds to fully reach the spending limit imposed by the city’s campaign finance program. But the bill, which has recently been amended in a significant way, is stirring controversy as it heads to a vote, with accusations against Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Ben Kallos, the bill's lead sponsor, that they are playing political games.

If adopted, the bill would lift the cap on the amount of public money a campaign can receive as a percentage of the spending limits on candidates who choose to participate in the matching funds system, which is run by the city's Campaign Finance Board (CFB). If passed as expected on Tuesday by the Council’s governmental operations committee, the bill would then move to a Thursday vote of the full Council, where it would be overwhelmingly likely to pass.

The new amendment to the bill, however, poses a potential hiccup in the process. The legislation now requires any political candidate who opts into the new campaign finance system -- with its lower individual donation limits, more generous public matching of small donations, and the potentially higher match threshold that the bill would create -- to return any contributions over the new system's maximum received in 2018. The maximum has dropped from a $5,100 individual contribution to $2,000 for citywide candidates, meaning a $3,100 return on each maximum donation if a candidate decides to opt into the new system.

Comptroller Scott Stringer, a likely mayoral candidate along with Johnson and others, would particularly be impacted by the bill amendment, and his campaign is calling out Johnson and Kallos, as first reported by the Daily News. If Stringer wants to access the new matching system, which is optional for only the current 2021 election cycle, he would have to return many thousands of dollars in contributions he received last year as he built a significant war chest for the upcoming race.

"Speaker Johnson is trying to circumvent the will of the voters and change the rules to benefit himself," a Stringer spokesperson said in a statement. "The Council should reject his brazen power grab.”

With the vote scheduled for Tuesday's noon committee hearing, it appears unlikely the bill will be derailed.

Responding to Stringer's criticism, Jennifer Fermino, a spokesperson for Johnson said, “The changes were made at the strong urging of the CFB. Both because of fairness and administrative efficiency. That said, no contributions made in a prior election cycle will have to be returned. Any candidate who wants to keep their big money donations from the last cycle is free to do so and maintain their edge over the competition.”

If passed by the full Council, the bill would then be at the mercy of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who would be likely to approve it. If it becomes law, the new thresholds would alter the landscape for the already-underway 2021 city election cycle that is set to feature an estimated 500 candidates for a wide variety of city offices. Most current officeholders from the mayor through the borough presidents and City Council members are term-limited from seeking reelection. Many term-limited officials, including Stringer and Johnson, will be seeking election to higher office.

The city’s campaign finance system is among the most robust of its kind and is lauded as a model for regulating campaign spending while promoting competitive elections, regardless of the wealth of candidates. Its signature components include a voluntary public financing program that matches small-dollar contributions; spending limits and restrictions on expenditures for participants; and thorough disclosure requirements and auditing.

“This legislation expands the new campaign finance laws overwhelmingly adopted by 80% of the voters on November 6, 2018, from only matching 75% of contributions to matching all of them at 89.89% so that the voices of everyday working New Yorkers are amplified over that of big money and lobbyists,” Kallos said in an emailed statement to Gotham Gazette, referring to a successful ballot referendum that passed last year to increase matching funds and reduce individual donation limits.

The matching system encourages candidates to seek small-dollar contributions and, as a result, reach out to more constituents, rather than soliciting large contributions from the city’s wealthiest political donors who often have or want city business or favors.

Supporters say it reduces the risk of corruption and contributes to the diversity of candidates. Through a series of public referenda and legislation since it was established in 1988, the public match has been expanded along with limits on the types of contributions participating candidates can receive and the amounts they can spend. The most recent changes to the program came out of the referendum to revise the City Charter last November.

There is currently a cap on the amount of public funds a participant in the city’s program, administered by the Campaign Finance Board, can receive. Caps are set at a percentage of the total spending limit for the different offices, forcing candidates to rely on a mix of public and private dollars, which the CFB believes has important benefits. To the board, striking the right balance with sensitivity to the shifting demands of campaigning in New York is key to the program’s success.

“The Program remains strong because of our work with the Council over the years to ensure that it evolves to meet the challenges of an evolving political landscape,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the CFB, before the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations when she testified on an earlier version of the bill in April.

Kallos’ bill is sponsored by 31 other Council members in the 51-seat chamber and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. It would tip the balance toward a full match and would also codify into the city Campaign Finance Act relevant pieces of the ballot referendum approved by voters last year.

Supporters of a full public match argue the system still leaves the city’s rich and powerful with outsized influence, especially in citywide races where candidates rely more on large contributions than candidates for City Council do. “In a system where every small dollar is matched, big money, PAC money, and lobbyist money that is not matched is far less valuable,” reads a press release from Kallos’ office.

One concern from the CFB is that increasing the amount of public funds limits the ability of candidates to spend campaign dollars on non-qualified expenditures -- things like childcare, post-election spending, payments in cash, and attorney fees for defending nominating petitions, among others. After an election, candidates must return any unused public funds and have to pay back money used on expenditures if they cannot show they were qualified. (Kallos’ bill, Intro. 732, has been amended since the April hearing to allow expenditures on ballot petition defense to become a qualified use of public funds.)

Candidates also have to return funds if they lack serious opposition or “do not end up running serious campaigns,” according to Loprest. For the candidates with the fewest resources -- the campaigns the program is intended to best support -- these liabilities can be discouraging and ultimately crippling.

Last year’s referendum, placed on the ballot by the 2018 Charter Revision Commission, resulted in the creation of new program parameters including increasing the public match on qualifying smaller donations from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1 and raising the amount of funds available from 55 percent to 75 percent of the spending limit.

The public matching funds program now matches the first $250 of contributions at a ratio of 8:1, meaning an individual contribution of that amount could trigger a disbursement of $2,000 in public funds. It also reduced the amount an individual can contribute from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide races, from $3,950 to $1,500 for borough president races, and $2,850 to $1,000 for City Council races.

Another change allowed public funds to be disbursed to candidates earlier in the campaign cycle.

For the 2021 elections, participating candidates will have the choice of opting into the new program, known as “Option A,” or sticking with the old rules, “Option B.” After 2021, the new system will become the only option. The choice was created to allow candidates who have already raised money under the old rules to stick with them.

The earlier disbursement of public funds can exacerbate the risks associated with unqualified expenditures for candidates who rely too heavily on them, according to Loprest. While making payments earlier in the election cycle allows candidates to be more competitive from the start and provides more time to deal with compliance issues, it can also lead them to spend more money that may need to be returned later, if they or their opponents drop out.

Kallos, a Democrat representing parts of the Upper East Side, was the prime sponsor of a law passed in 2016, which dealt with the risks of early disbursement by setting a limit on the payments made before the ballot is finalized. The 2018 charter commission also bars early payments to candidates who could not show they were opposed by a serious candidate.

The original version of Kallos’ bill removed that prohibition, raising concerns for the CFB. The new version being considered Tuesday includes a number of changes apparently aimed at addressing those concerns. Financial disclosures would have to be filed prior to early payment dates and candidates would be required to complete a certification of participation in advance of any payment date, Kallos told Gotham Gazette. Candidates receiving funds before the ballot petitioning period would have to be “actively campaigning” in order to make qualified expenditures.

“We were pleased to work with the Council in this most recent version of the legislation to address some of the concerns we raised in April,” Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesperson, told Gotham Gazette by email. Kallos echoed the sentiment, saying that the Council listens to “a lot of testimony” and changed the bill as a result of feedback from the CFB and other experts.

Most controversially and at the last minute, the new version of the bill also has language that would make the new rules for Option A -- both the 8-to-1 match and the lower contribution limits -- retroactive to apply to contributions received before the referendum changes went into effect on January 12, 2019. Candidates seeking to benefit from the new higher match would have to return any contributions above the new limits, even if received prior to the law changing.

For candidates running for citywide posts, that means $3,100 of every maximum contribution would have to be returned.

This could be especially challenging for candidates like Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, all of whom have been raising money in planned campaigns for mayor. The fourth expected Democratic mayoral candidate at this point is City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who began raising money for a mayoral run earlier this year with a number of self-imposed rules, including not taking any donations above $250. Johnson stands to benefit, comparatively speaking, from the amended version of Kallos’ bill that would make others return thousands of dollars if they opt into the new system.

The move that particularly stands to hurt Stringer and help Johnson, is being called a "power grab" and using of government position to impact a political campaign.

“If I need to pass a law to get people to do the right thing I'll do it,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette over the phone when asked about the amendment. “If they don't want to participate in the new system, there is nothing saying they have to,” he added.

The bill could also of course help Kallos and many of his other Council colleagues who may be seeking higher office like a borough presidency or the comptroller’s seat.

Kallos was also the author of a law passed this year that allowed candidates running in the February special election to replace former Public Advocate Letitia James to opt in to the new public matching parameters established in the referendum. For Loprest and the CFB, the election showcased the positive effects already unfolding from the increase in the partial match.

“Early data from that special election shows that this new iteration of the Program is working as intended,” she told the committee in April. “The most frequent contribution size across all candidates was just $10, compared to $100 in previous citywide races.”

For the bill on the table Tuesday, supporters in the Council are eager for the cap on public funds to be raised further. “We need these reforms now,” wrote Council Member Fernando Cabrera, a Democrat from the Bronx who chairs the governmental operations committee, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated, and will continue to be updated as the situation around the bill changes.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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