Gotham Gazette

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Hochul’s Budget Offers Far Less Funding Than Requested by New State Public Campaign Finance Board

Governor Hochul presents her budget (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)

Governor Kathy Hochul has included $39.5 million for New York's Public Campaign Finance Board (PCFB), a fraction of the funding the new agency requested to launch a long-anticipated public matching fund program for state campaigns.

Candidates for statewide and state legislative office now have the opportunity to receive a public match on small-dollar donations, a program meant to reduce the influence of big money donors in elections. On Wednesday, the Democratic governor released her $227 billion Executive Budget proposal that outlined $25 million for the pool of public matching dollars the board will eventually distribute and another $14.5 million for the State Board of Elections, which houses the PCFB, to launch the program for the 2023-24 election cycle.

That is far less than the $100 million for matching funds that the Public Campaign Finance Board requested in December, but it does meet the Board’s $14.5 million request to hire staff and develop infrastructure. The $100 million sought by PCFB and the $25 million Hochul is seeking in the fiscal year 2024 budget would be paid out for candidates running in the 2024 primary and general elections, which fall in fiscal year 2025.

According to the governor's office, Hochul's limited allocation is in part because there are no anticipated public matching fund payments in the upcoming fiscal year, but that fiscal year will run through the end of March 2024, just a few months before the June 2024 primary. The State Board of Elections and Public Campaign Finance Board have not yet published a calendar for the election cycle that would outline various dates when public matching payments will be distributed based on periodic campaign filings. A spokesperson for Hochul told Gotham Gazette that the overall appropriation in the governor's budget plan is a sign of her commitment to the program.

The governor’s Executive Budget will form the basis of negotiations with the Legislature, with an agreement due by the start of next fiscal year on April 1. Hochul, who just won her first term in the role, will be negotiating with the legislative leaders, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, both fellow Democrats.

Neither Stewart-Cousins' nor Heastie's office returned requests for comment about funding the Public Campaign Finance Board.

The board is seeking a secure base of funding for when it begins distributing payments in 2024, when potentially hundreds of candidates for State Senate and Assembly will be enrolled in the program.

The PCFB "reviewed private reports and conducted internal forecasting" to reach the $100 million estimate for public matching funds needed in the election cycle now underway, according to a December budget resolution. The resolution specifically stated those funds would be for payments made in fiscal year 2025, which begins April 2024. That sum would build on $10 million Hochul and the Legislature already allocated to the fund in the current state budget. Advocates for stronger campaign finance laws called the PCFB request "reasonable." The entire State Legislature is on the ballot again in 2024, and every two years, with statewide elections next set for 2026.

A spokesperson for the PCFB commended the proposed operations funding but would not comment on the governor's relatively low public match appropriation.

"The Governor’s proposed executive budget will allow the Public Campaign Finance Board to continue its work in preparation for the 2024 State legislative election," wrote Jennifer Wilson, the PCFB spokesperson, in an email to Gotham Gazette. "The funding will allow for the hiring of additional PCFB staff needed for daily operations and the implementation of new software technology."

The executive budget announcement riled supporters of the campaign finance program on Wednesday who said it fails to meet the needs of the new program.

“New York’s public campaign financing program has the potential to break the dominance of our elections by a handful of the wealthiest donors and amplify the voices of everyday New Yorkers," said Joanna Zdanys, senior counsel at the NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, which has been a leading voice in advancing the new program, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "While a start, the funding the Executive Budget provides for public financing falls short of what's needed to realize that promise."

"We applaud [Governor Hochul's] decision to fully fund the PCFB’s administrative request, but her budget appropriation of $25 million for the matching funds is insufficient for building a robust system at the state level," wrote Karen Wharton, an organizer with the progressive advocacy group Citizen Action, which has focused on campaign finance reform, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

Supporters say small-donor matching programs, like New York City's acclaimed model, reduce the outsized influence of mega-donors on elections, particularly after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that allowed for unlimited independent expenditures to support or oppose candidates. Advocates point to wide participation by candidates in New York City’s program and the results of elections in the city where candidates of modest and diverse backgrounds often win elections, as well as the greater reliance on small donations by congressional candidates who are women and people of color.

Hochul's campaign for governor raised attention last year for setting fundraising records, ultimately taking in $57.7 million in 2021 and 2022 under the outgoing rules, which included no public match and higher contribution limits. Roughly a third of her donations during that time – almost 10,000 – were over the matchable threshold ($250) under the new system.

Part of the $14.5 million the Public Campaign Finance Board sought for its operations included expanding its staff capacity of auditors, trainers, and compliance officers from 64 members to 118. The board is also exploring software to support the program, which includes tracking hundreds of thousands of donations made to hundreds of candidate committees each cycle.

New York State's new program provides a 6-to-1 match on in-state campaign donations between $5 and $250 for statewide offices. That means a $250 donation to a candidate for governor could be worth $1,750. For state legislative offices the size of the match is smaller. Candidates must reach certain thresholds in fundraising in order to qualify for public funds.

State lawmakers approved the new opt-in program in 2020. The first elections it will be in effect are the 2024 races for State Senate and Assembly, followed by the 2026 elections, when Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Comptroller, and all 213 legislative seats will be on the ballot.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt did not return requests for comment about the funding proposal.

“The governor’s Executive Budget sets a more reasonable budget number than what was formally requested, but that’s where ‘reason’ ends," said Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "Whether it’s $29 million or $114 million, political campaigns are not the place to spend the public’s money. I hope the governor maintains some level of fiscal prudence as budget negotiations move forward.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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