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State Commission Approves New Campaign Finance System, Raises Bar for Political Party Ballot Access

pubic hearing 1

the state campaign finance commission at its final meeting

The New York State Public Campaign Financing Commission held its final meeting on Monday, voting to institute the creation of a new system for public funding of campaigns for statewide and state legislative offices, with lower contribution limits intended to reduce the effect of money in elections. Though the commission did not act to eliminate fusion voting, as minor political parties and their allies feared, it did move to increase the threshold for parties to obtain a position on the ballot, creating uncertainty about their survival.

The commission, recommendations from which become law unless the state Legislature takes action before Christmas, also voted to establish a new body to administer the campaign finance system. While it advanced historic reforms for New York State, the commission was also criticized by good government groups for not going far enough, and by many members and supporters of political parties like the Working Families, Conservative, and Green parties for what it did do. The entire process also appeared marred by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desire to punish the WFP, which has long been a thorn in the governor’s side.

Earlier this year, Cuomo and the Democrat-led state Legislature failed to come to an agreement on major campaign finance reforms including a new public matching system. Instead, they compromised and left the task up to a nine-member commission of gubernatorial and legislative appointees, charging it with creating a system with an annual budget of $100 million. The commission’s recommendations, approved with seven votes in favor and two opposed, become law within three weeks unless the state Legislature chooses to hold a special session to amend them.

State leaders can also always adjust the law in the next session and beyond, of course. It is slated to take effect after the 2022 election cycle, the next year with a gubernatorial race. The entire state Legislature is on the ballot in 2020, and every two years.

Under the system proposed by the commission, candidates will be able to opt into a program to receive matching public funds for small dollar donations up to $250. The first $50 will be matched at a 12-to-1 ratio; the second $100 will be matched 9-to-1; and the last $100 will be matched 8-to-1. Only contributions from donors within a candidate’s district will be matchable (for statewide candidates that is the whole state).

The program will be administered by a seven-member Public Campaign Finance Board made up of the four existing commissioners of the state Board of Elections and one member each appointed by the governor and by the majority and minority leaders in the state Legislature.

Despite its mandate to effectively curb the influence that large donors can have in elections, the commission voted on lower contribution limits that are nonetheless quite high. Statewide candidates can raise $18,000 in total from an individual donor in each election cycle, down from about $70,000 currently; candidates for State Senate can raise up to $10,000 from individuals, down from $19,300; and Assembly candidates can raise $6,000, down from $9,400. Notably, the commission did not address limits for party committees, which can raise as much as $117,300 from a single donor and then dole it out to candidates as they see fit. dd

Commissioner John Nonna, an appointee of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, expressed his discomfort with the contribution limits but conceded that the commission had to make compromises to ensure the recommendations would receive consensus. “The Legislature could not pass this bill….Our process is kind of like a legislative process. There have to be some concessions,” he said. “As reluctant as I am, I’m willing to compromise on this.”

The limit for Assembly candidates was the focus of some last-minute controversy. At their previous meeting, commissioners settled on a $5,000 individual donation limit, and a motion made on Monday to increase it to $6,000 initially failed. But, following a brief break, commissioners returned and reconsidered the motion and approved the increase of $1,000. At least two commissioners reversed their “no” votes, including Jay Jacobs, chair of the State Democratic Party and a Cuomo-appointed member of the commission.

That wasn’t the only motion where commissioners could not make up their minds. Commissioner Kimberly Galvin, co-director of the State BOE’s Campaign Finance Compliance Unit and an appointee of Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, suggested that the commission vote to increase the number of petition signatures required for a statewide candidate to get on the ballot from 15,000 currently to 45,000. The motion was defeated, as was another that would have increased the signature requirement to 30,000. Again, in a later reconsidered vote, the commission ultimately voted to approve the 45,000 signature threshold, which could hurt opportunity for smaller or new political parties to field candidates for statewide offices.

But perhaps the most controversial move approved by the commission was an increase in the qualifying threshold for third parties to appear on the ballot and win an ongoing ballot line. Currently, parties like the Working Families Party and Conservative Party only require 50,000 votes in the previous gubernatorial election to make the cut and field candidates across the state on their ballot line in various elections over the course of four years. Instead of qualifying in every four-year gubernatorial election, parties will have to meet a threshold every two years of 2% of votes cast or 130,000 votes, whichever is higher, in the gubernatorial or presidential elections.

To many, the move was clearly intended as a reprisal against the WFP, which endorsed his primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon, in last year’s election. The WFP could lose its ballot line if the threshold is allowed to stand, limiting the role it plays in state politics as a driver of progressive candidates and policy.

Henry Berger, who was jointly appointed to the commission by the governor, Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Heastie, sought to rationalize the move, saying the lower threshold allows for the creation of “vanity parties” that clutter the ballot and could lead to primaries that will “bankrupt” the system. Jacobs agreed, insisting, “We’re not looking to target any particular party.”

The WFP wasn’t buying the argument. “This is a power grab by the Governor and his allies to consolidate power and weaken independent progressive political organizing,” said WFP New York director Bill Lipton, in a statement on Monday. “The result is that New York will be the most hostile state in America to minor parties — if the changes hold up to legal scrutiny.”

Other ‘minor’ parties, including the Greens and Conservatives, also criticized the move, and at least one legal challenge may be imminent. The commission was already the source of a lawsuit from the Conservative and Working Families parties over its apparent targeting of fusion voting.

The commission’s recommendations were just as swiftly criticized by government reform groups.

“The public financing commission is a ploy to divert responsibility from the Legislature to unelected representatives,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, in a statement. “The Senate and the Assembly should vote no on these proposals and craft their own bill with hearings and public input. With unreasonably high contribution limits and the gratuitous raising of the threshold for third party ballot access, the commission's work represents a set-back not a step forward. Public financing of elections is too important to get wrong -- but there's still time for the Legislature to get it right.”

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, said the new system is better than the current one, but was nonetheless disheartened.

“It's an improvement over the status quo but it doesn't rise to the level of our support because it doesn't do enough to mitigate big money,” he said. He noted that the commission did not reduce contribution limits for corporations, unions, or vendors with business before the state.

He also said the structure of the proposed PCFB seems to undercut the power of the state BOE’s enforcement counsel, currently Risa Sugarman, by giving it authority over all candidates who choose to participate in the new program. With contribution limits being the same for participants and non-participants, Camarda said there would likely be few who do not opt in, “which means that her enforcement office will have much less jurisdiction, really only over non-participating candidates and independent expenditure committees. That's far less jurisdiction than she currently has. So I think that's something that's been overlooked.”

Of the nine commissioners, only the two Republican appointees – Galvin and David Previte – voted against the final proposal package. Several of the other commissioners expressed some frustration with the outcome but said it was a set of compromises they could support.

“It's the funding mechanism that gives me pause that won't allow me to vote for this bill,” Galvin said, agreeing that the system is “workable” but saying it should not be funded through taxpayer money.

Previte was disappointed that the commission diverged from the “gold standard” set by New York City’s three-decade old public funds program which was the model that many thought the state program should emulate. “The incentive to fundraise endlessly is still there,” he said. “And until those aspects of the program are removed, I don't think you're really developing a taxpayer-funded publicly financed program. You're really creating a base subsidy for candidates.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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