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Public Campaign Finance Plan Condemned By NY’s Minor Parties

New York state Capitol
Jim Levulis

New York state’s public campaign finance commission has voted on a package of bills that would enact a public matching donor program, and put strict new limits on the abilities of minor parties to qualify to be on the ballot. Monday’s meeting was at times interrupted by protesters, who compared the commission’s actions to those of President Donald Trump, while some government reform groups say they can’t support the final product.

The commissioners, by a vote of 7 to 2, approved a plan to allow a matching small donor program for state officeholders, saying they believe it will be “effective and workable.”

Commissioner Jay Jacobs, who was appointed by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, and is also the head of the state’s Democratic Party, served as defacto chair.  He called it a “tremendous starting point.”

But the system approved converges in some significant ways from New York City’s long running and largely successful system.

Donation thresholds will be higher than for New York City Mayor. Candidates for the governor’s office can receive donations of up to $18,000. But only donations of $250 or less will qualify for matching funds at a rate of $6 for every $1 contributed. Candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller can receive donations eligible for matching funds from all over the state. 

But candidates for state Senate and Assembly will only be allowed to receive public matching funds from donors who live in their district.

The earliest the program can take effect, says the commissioners, is more than 6 years from now, in 2026, two years after the next governor’s race is held in 2022.

Audience members, many of them from government reform groups, loudly voiced their disagreement with the proposal, saying it’s designed to help incumbents and hampers democracy.

“Shame on you!” they shouted, as commissioners threatened to clear the room.

But the loudest protests came when the commissioners voted to make it harder for minor parties to qualify for the ballot. Instead of 50,000 votes in the race for governor, held every four years, parties other than the Democratic and Republican parties will have to requalify every two years, and will have to receive either 2% of the total vote count or 130,000 votes in a presidential year, 140,000 in a gubernatorial year, whichever is lower.

Protesters accused Jacobs of working for “boss Cuomo” and commissioners of acting like President Donald Trump. 

Jacobs says legitimate parties won’t have a problem meeting the new threshold.

“We are not looking to target any particular party,” Jacobs says, as the crowd grumbled. “Any credible party, and I know we can agree on which are the credible parties, are going to meet these thresholds.” 

And he says he’s worried that with the taxpayers funding the matching system, too many parties could cost too much money.

“We have to watch the public fisc,” Jacobs said.

Members of the left-leaning Working Families Party, who have been feuding with Cuomo, say the governor is just trying to get rid of them, something Cuomo denies.

“Instead of designing a strong system of public financing of elections, this commission has designed a weak one, as a cover for a politically motivated attack on the Working Families Party,” said Working Families Party spokeswoman Monika Klein.

In a tweet, the party’s executive director in New York, Bill Lipton said “this is a power grab by @NYGovCuomo and his allies to consolidate power and weaken independent progressive political organizing. 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.”

A senior advisor to Governor Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi, called the WFP’s concerns “paranoid rants” and said only two of the nine commissioners were appointed by Cuomo.

The commission members reversed their votes three times within the four hour meeting, including on another proposal to make it more difficult for minor parties to win a spot on the ballot.

That proposal would increase the current requirement of 15,000 signatures for nominating petitions by three times that amount, to 45,000 signatures. It was initially voted down. Commissioners then proposed alternative higher thresholds, including 25,000 or 30,000 signatures, which were also voted down.

But after a 20-minute break, commissioners returned and held a second vote to up the signature threshold to 45,000, and this time it passed.

Commissioner John Nonna, an appointee of Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, says the proposal needed to be reconsidered, because without its approval, the entire campaign finance package might fail in the final vote.

“In the break it became my view, from the discussions I’ve had that this whole package for campaign finance may fall apart if we did not go with the original recommendations,” Nonna said. 

The commission’s work is being challenged in court by the Working Families Party, the Conservative Party, and republicans in the senate and assembly.

The Conservative Party, which is the only minor party that would still be granted automatic ballot access under the changed rules said in a statement that its “principles get in the way of any celebrating."

“We continue to believe that Governor Cuomo's commission lacks the constitutional authority to make law -- only a duly elected legislature can do that,” said Party Chair Jerry Kassar. “And we remain philosophically opposed to taxpayer funded political campaigns.”

A coalition of pro-public campaign finance groups, known as the Fair Elections Coalition, condemned the commission’s work, saying it is fatally flawed. 

Alex Camarda, with the government reform group Reinvent Albany, says his organization, which is a member of the coalition, can’t support the commissions’ final plan, calling it a "historic missed opportunity.” But he says it’s not all bad.

“It does still advantage incumbents, because they can raise large contributions,” Camarda said. “But at the same time just creating a public financing program does help candidates to compete against incumbents.”

The commission’s final report is due by December 1. If the legislature does not act to change it the recommendations become law by the end of the year.

The Fair Elections Coalition says lawmakers need to return to the Capitol before then and come up with a better plan.

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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