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Commissioners Disagree On How Best To Devise Public Campaign Financing In NY

New York State Capitol
Karen DeWitt
New York State Capitol

Some members of a commission that’s creating the rules for a public campaign finance system for elected offices in New York state are concerned the plans being developed are too favorable to incumbent politicians.

Members of the Fair Elections Coalition, a public campaign finance advocacy group, briefly disrupted a commission meeting to express their displeasure with its actions.

“Big money out,” they shouted, as the commissioner watched.  

The protesters eventually ended their demonstration, but they were not the only ones to express doubts about the commission’s direction.

The nine-member commission, made up of appointees of Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders, took a series of preliminary votes Wednesday. One, approved 6-3, would permit incumbents to keep the money in their campaign war chests from previous election cycles, even if they take part in a new public matching system. However, they wouldn’t get matching funds for cash collected in those previous campaigns. 

Appointees could not decide how high to set limits for total contributions from an individual for statewide candidates. Proposals included limits of $15,000 and $20,000 per election cycle for the governor’s race. The amount limited for presidential candidates in the federal system is significantly lower than that at $5,600.

Another proposal would limit matching funds in state legislative races to donors who actually live in a Senate or Assembly candidate’s district. A $250 donation would ultimately be worth $2,500 under the plan. The first $50 would be matched 12-to-1 with public matching funds, the second $100 would be matched 9-to-1, and the final $100 would be eligible for an 8-to-1 public match. Candidates could still receive donations from people who don’t live in the district, but they would not be matched with public funds.

The proposals led DeNora Getachew, an appointee of the Senate Democrats, to worry that the proposal could disadvantage candidates in poor communities.

“People who live below the poverty line don’t have the savings,” Getachew said. “So they are not going to choose to allocate the little bit of resources they have towards this.”

Getachew says she’s concerned with the direction the commission seems to be heading.

“War chests are in, high contribution limits are in,” she said. “We are designing a system that is not going to incentivize viable candidates to participate.”

Kimberly Galvin, appointed by Assembly Republicans, who are in the minority in that house, also questioned why the commission does not adopt the 6-to-1 matching system in use for decades in New York City. That proposal is favored by many public campaign finance advocates and experts.

“All the experts say a 6-to-1 match statewide makes it work,” Galvin said.

Other commission members, including Cuomo appointees Jay Jacobs, who is also the state Democratic Party Chair, and Mylan Denerstein, say preventing out-of-district contributions from receiving matching public funds amplifies the voices of in-district residents. Jacobs says no one is going to be completely happy with any plan.

“There is no magic formula here,” Jacobs said. “We’re going to improve the world as it relates to campaign finance. It will not be perfect.”

The commission has previously discussed the controversial idea of whether to limit candidate’s abilities to run on multiple party lines, known as fusion voting. Jacobs proposed that minor parties be held to stricter standards to qualify for automatic ballot placement, and that the state should require a party earn 250,000 votes every two years, instead of the current standard of 50,000 votes every four years. That could limit the number of political parties that could participate in cross-endorsing major party candidates.

Jacobs promised to offer a new proposal to the commissioners before the next meeting, scheduled for November 18.

John Nonna, also an appointee of the Senate Democrats, proposed a motion to table any further discussion of changing the state’s rules on fusion voting, saying it was a “distraction” to the commission’s work. No one seconded the motion.

Meanwhile, the left-leaning Working Families Party and the Conservative Party have filed separate lawsuits, saying the commission does not have the authority to change the rules for fusion voting. The judge in the case on Tuesday rejected a motion from the commission to dismiss the lawsuit, and has set oral arguments for December 12. The lawyer for the Working Families Party, former state Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, says he’s encouraged.

“There’s more to do, but we’re pleased by the direction the litigation is taking,” Brodsky said.

The commission’s report is due December 1, before the court action concludes. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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