In the Legislature (photo: NYS Senate Media Services)
State lawmakers this week approved Governor Kathy Hochul's proposed $39.5 million allocation to New York's new campaign finance system, including base funding for a small-dollar public match.
The funding includes $25 million for public matching funds that will be available to participating candidates running for statewide and legislative offices beginning in 2024. It also includes the full $14.5 million sought by administrators to run the program.
The new system, passed by Democrats in 2020, lowered individual contributions limits and will multiply small, in-state or in-district donations starting at a 6-to-1 match for contributions below $250. Modeled on New York City's decades-old system and the Campaign Finance Board that runs it, good government groups say the new state system will make outsider candidates more competitive, help increase diversity among state-level elected officials, and incentivize candidates to engage with more voters.
"Governor Hochul is committed to restoring trust in government, and that includes ensuring the Public Campaign Finance Board has the resources it needs to fulfill its obligations under the law," wrote spokesperson Hazel Crampton-Hays in an email to Gotham Gazette.
Lawmakers passed and Hochul signed the $229 billion budget this week, almost a month after the April 1 start of the fiscal year, following weeks of debate among Hochul and legislative leaders over bail reform, housing policy, and other issues.
The new campaign finance funding comes after uncertainty during budget negotiations about implementing the program – including potentially postponing it. As late as March, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins would not rule out the possibility of delaying the small-dollar match until after the 2024 elections, when all 213 seats of the State Legislature will be on the ballot. Doing so would give incumbents seeking reelection one more chance to go before voters under the rules that last got them elected.
Advocates waged a campaign in the weeks leading up to the final budget agreement to preserve the system as lawmakers had passed it three years ago and provide it the funding requested by the new Public Campaign Finance Board. The final budget contains no delays nor does it otherwise tinker with the program.
"Public financing has made New York City elections more accessible and fair, and that's exactly the goal for statewide public campaign financing," said Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat and chair of the Senate’s elections committee, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "I'm really pleased we secured funding to expand the program in this year's budget because our democracy is stronger when the playing field is level."
"I am excited that lawmakers have taken the next step by funding the program in the state budget," said Assembly Member Latrice Walker, also a Brooklyn Democrat and the Assembly's elections chair, in a statement. Walker voted against the budget over opposition to rollbacks of bail reforms she championed in 2019.
"The seats of government should be open to people like me who grew up in public housing developments in Brownsville. Seats should be open to people who are not beholden to hedge funds and mega-donors. This is good for democracy,” Walker added.
Earlier this year, Democratic supermajorities in the State Senate and Assembly each approved one-house budget resolutions in response to Hochul's executive budget proposal that included the $39.5 million for public campaign financing. Spokespeople for Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not respond to requests for comment on the funding.
Republicans denounced the funding, arguing it will spend tax dollars with few returns for New Yorkers.
“The public deserved a budget that made New York safer and more affordable," wrote Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "Instead they got billions in additional spending and higher taxes to help fund welfare for politicians.”
"I've said from the beginning, taxpayer dollars and political campaigns don't belong anywhere near each other,” said Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “It's that simple. Democrats' willingness to dole out public money never wavers, and that's a persistent problem in New York.”
"There's a huge disparity in resources between what the financing board requested and what actually made it in the budget," Barclay added. "A $100 million request was ludicrous, it will be interesting to see how the program runs with 60 percent less than what the board said it needed."
Ultimately, the Public Campaign Finance Board, an arm of the State Board of Elections responsible for implementing the system, estimates it will need $100 million for matching funds for the 2024 election cycle when hundreds of legislative candidates will be seeking office across the state.
Supporters of the system were concerned that not including the full funding portended potential delays or clawbacks of the hard fought victory. Hochul has maintained that her inclusion of the $25 million demonstrates her commitment to the new program. It builds on $20.6 included in last year's budget. The remaining funding will need to be included in next year's budget in order to reach the Board’s target.
"The agreed-upon funding for the Public Campaign Finance Program and the small donor matching system is a big and important step in giving everyday New Yorkers a stronger voice in their democracy following a frustrating budget process," reads a statement from Fair Elections NY, a coalition of advocacy and labor groups pushing for the funding. "This financial commitment to New York State's landmark program will be invaluable to its first year and affirms what a majority of voters have long demanded."
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette