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Hochul faces a big reform test

Running for political office is not easy. A candidate has to put together a campaign, one that attracts a significant constituency, one that carries a compelling message, and one with adequate resources. To be successful, a campaign needs money. 

All of this is well known; it’s an old political adage that “money is the mother’s milk of politics.” 

In America, by and large, the financing of electoral campaigns for any office is done by those with business before the government. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, it is difficult to do anything meaningful to curb the obvious conflict of interest that occurs when wealthy individuals and powerful interest groups fund the elections of soon-to-be-incumbents. 

Here in New York, the system of campaign financing has been described as a “disgrace.” Until recently, the requirements for disclosing donors were mediocre, enforcement was non-existent, and contribution limits were ridiculously high. Elected officials were so brazen about ignoring obvious conflicts of interest that during the legislative session they hold campaign fundraisers for lobbyists within walking distance of the Capitol. 

Reforms have come about in recent years. New York’s highest-in-the-nation campaign contribution limits have been lowered, although they still far exceed the national average. The public now has online access to campaign disclosures. A new office of elections enforcement has been created, although it is still under the thumb of the two political parties that run the state Board of Elections. 

Most notably, the state approved the creation of a voluntary system of public financing. Under that system, candidates for governor, attorney general, comptroller and the Legislature can receive public resources if they agree to focus their fundraising on obtaining smaller contributions. The new state system allows candidates to get a public match for every dollar in small-sized contributions. The smaller the contribution, the larger the public match. Under the program, every dollar of the first $50 of a small contribution receives a $12 match, meaning that the $50 becomes $600. 

The legislation loosely tracks the 30-year-old program that has been in place in New York City. The City’s program is considered a model for the nation and has a long track record of adapting to and learning from changes in campaign financing. 

The new state program started up the day after the 2022 general election and will be in place for the 2024 election (with only state legislators on the ballot). So far, over 100 candidates for the 2024 election have chosen to participate. 

Despite the fact that this program is just starting up, during the 2023 legislative session a deal was cut to change the program. There had been no public hearings on the program, no extensive legislative debate, in fact no public discussion at all. Just a last-minute deal rammed through at the end of session. 

What does the legislation do? It includes many changes, some big and some small. Two examples of the most impactful changes are: (1) Under current law, the public “matches” donations up to $250; the legislation changes that so that any legal donation can be matched with public funds. (2) It sets higher campaign financing thresholds for eligibility in the program. For example, candidates for the Assembly must raise $12,000 from 145 in-district donors, which is an increase over the current law which requires candidates to raise $6,000 from 75 in-district donors. Similar changes are made for Senate candidates. 

The legislators’ rationale for the changes is that they “aim to facilitate participation in the public campaign finance program for candidates.” Undoubtedly some of the changes will do that, but as mentioned earlier, the legislation was rushed through with little public debate. So, who supported the changes? All the good government groups opposed the bill, stating it will create “huge structural damage to the state’s landmark public campaign finance law and is counter to the law’s goals.” 

Reformers argue that the legislation advanced changes that would make participation in the program harder – not easier – for challengers. No surprise that incumbent legislators would find those changes worthwhile, but what will the governor do? 

The legislation was sent to Governor Hochul for her review and action. Under state law, she has ten days – excluding Sunday – to review and either approve the legislation or veto it. Reformers have urged a veto due to the changes that weaken the law and the secretive process that conjured it up in the first place. 

New Yorkers will soon know how the governor views her legacy of reform.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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