Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

New York Kicks Off Its New Voluntary System of Public Financing of Elections

Posted by NYPIRG on November 21, 2022 at 8:26 am

This past election New Yorkers were inundated by political ads paid for by Big Money.  Huge campaign contributions from lobbyists and those who have contracts – or are seeking them –with  the government, as well as unlimited spending by wealthy special interest patrons, dominated the political landscape.  Those groups spoke with the equivalent of a megaphone amplified through rock-arena speakers.  In contrast the voices of average New Yorkers were barely a whisper.

What happened is not unique to New York. 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution has made it impossible to impose a limit on campaign spending.  The first Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Using its interpretation of the phrase “freedom of speech” in the mid-1970s the Court ruled, in the landmark case Buckley v. Valeo, that statutory limits on campaign contributions were not violations of the First Amendment freedom of expression, but that statutory limits on campaign spending were unconstitutional. 

The Court interpreted the First Amendment by deciding that restricting spending money to facilitate campaign messaging “reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.”

Of course, there is nothing in the Constitution that equates the two.  And it was that decision that laid the groundwork decades later for the now-infamous Citizens United decision, which said that political spending independent of candidate control could not be restricted.  As a result, in America it is essentially unconstitutional to restrict the wealthy and powerful from spending as much as they want to influence elections.

New Yorkers saw the impact in the elections earlier this month.  Campaign donors drive elections and only those who curry Big Money’s favor can mount serious candidacies.

Against that depressing backdrop, New York has taken a step toward making it easier for grassroots candidates to run for office without having to be beholden to the wealthy and powerful.

In 2020, as a result of a big push from former Governor Cuomo, New York established a voluntary system of public financing of elections.  That program started up the day after Election Day of this year.  All statewide candidates, including those running for governor, comptroller and attorney general, as well as the 213 legislative seats in Albany, are eligible to participate.

New York’s program allows private direct contributions of between $5 and $250 to be matched with public funds, depending on the size.  The smaller the contribution, the bigger the public match; up to $12 for every contribution of no more than $50 for example.  Thus, candidates would be able to run for office by raising small contributions through a system of clean public resources that amplified small donations, instead of depending on big checks from special interest groups, wealthy individuals, and lobbyists.

New York has experience with a voluntary public financing system.  For over 30 years, New York City has had a similar program – considered a model for the nation.

And now that type of system is moving to a statewide scale in the new election cycle.  The hope is that smaller donations will reduce the influence of big money in politics and enhance electoral challenges.

The 2020 legislation also significantly reduced the allowable campaign contribution amounts.  For example, Governor Hochul was able to receive contributions up to $69,700 this year.  Starting now, she can “only” receive $18,000.  While a big drop, it is still much higher than New York’s U.S. Senator Schumer can receive; which is no more than $5,800 from an individual, and far more than the national average contribution to a state’s candidates for governor, which is $6,126.  The 2020 reform did nothing to limit donations from lobbyists or those who are seeking government contracts.

In addition, the new law could not do anything about the flood of so-called “independent” spending by corporations or wealthy individuals.  And public financing is a voluntary system, with participation a choice to be made by the candidate. 

But it does offer those New Yorkers of average means, who are not part of a network that includes the wealthy, to make a serious run for state office.  And given the tight grip the well-connected have over our government, electoral competition may be the only way to offset that enormous influence.

More can be done – including the creation of an independent enforcement agency, limits on those seeking government contracts, and lobbyist donations – but New York’s public financing system brings some good news.  News that holds the promise that the voices of rank and file New Yorkers can rise above a whisper.

The 2022 Election in New York

Posted by NYPIRG on November 14, 2022 at 9:23 am

Americans made their way to the polls last week and collectively voted to keep the status quo, more or less.  The U.S. Senate will remain in Democratic Party control with a razor thin majority; control of the House is still up for grabs.  Whichever party ends up in the majority, that margin will also be small.

Here in New York the election results left the status quo in place.  U.S. Senate Majority Leader Schumer, Governor Hochul, Attorney General James, Comptroller DiNapoli – all Democrats – were elected to statewide offices in this deep blue state.  Voters also maintained the status quo in the state Senate and state Assembly, with large Democratic Party majorities in each house.

But looking at those results from 30,000 feet ignores troubling signs for Democrats.  The big win forecast for incumbent Governor Hochul ended up much closer than most expected.  The Democrat Legislative majorities in both houses lost seats.  In the outcome that could have the biggest impact, seats that the Democrats controlled in the Congress flipped to Republicans.  Those “flips” may make the difference in who controls the House.

So, what happened?  Let’s look at three areas: campaign financing, turnout, and redistricting.

First, the basics.  Voter enrollment in New York gives a big edge to Democrats.  By a roughly 2 to 1 margin, Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York.  In fact, there are more New Yorkers not enrolled in a political party than there are Republicans.  Republicans have not won a statewide election in 20 years. 

Yet, Republican Lee Zeldin came within 5 points of beating Democrat incumbent Kathy Hochul. The candidates relied on two different campaign fundraising strategies.

The Hochul campaign used the power of incumbency to raise an enormous amount of money in a short period of time.  Lobbyists and those seeking government business are always looking for a leg up, donating to an incumbent – particularly one in a blue state – seems like a safe bet.  The governor knows that and used it to spectacular advantage.

Hochul raised $50 million in one year, a record for the largest haul in the shortest time in New York history.  She used a ton of it to fend off primary challengers and ran up a big polling advantage over her Republican opponent, Lee Zeldin, a Congressmember from the Republican-voting eastern end of Long Island.  Zeldin is a conservative, who supports gun rights, opposes abortion, and voted to overturn the 2020 Presidential election.  He seemed to be mismatched with the New York electorate. 

Like Republicans nationwide, Zeldin organized his campaign around public safety and inflation.  He was disciplined and hard hitting.  And his campaign benefited from another campaign financing practice – one that allows unlimited spending by an individual or an interest group if they do not formally coordinate with the candidate.  These so-called “independent expenditures” helped keep Zeldin in the game through the summer and into the fall.  Largely funded by one man – billionaire Ron Lauder, who spent at least $11 million on behalf of the Zeldin candidacy – this support helped to offset the governor’s fundraising advantage. 

The Lauder barrage hammered Hochul on crime and coupled with Zeldin’s disciplined message narrowed the polling gap as Election Day drew closer, which in turn encouraged more Republican donors to help Zeldin.

How the Hochul campaign spent her war chest to fend off Zeldin will become clearer when disclosures are made public next month, but it took a concerted effort by big Democratic names – President Biden, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and other luminaries – to boost turnout and help the governor win her election.

Which leads to the second election factor: turnout.  How could a conservative Republican candidate lose by such a narrow margin in a deep blue state?  A review of the election results does show one big change in the 2022 election: lower voter turnout in New York City. 

New York City voters cast more than 400,000 fewer votes in 2022 than in 2018 – the last gubernatorial election.  Of course, all those votes would not have gone to Hochul, but New York City has a 5-to-1 Democrat enrollment advantage, so a turnout in 2022 as there was in 2018 could have doubled the governor’s margin of victory, turning a squeaker into a solid win.

And then there is redistricting – the once-a-decade process for adjusting state legislative and congressional district lines based on the census.  All races have their own unique and local rationales, but it’s fair to say that the district lines drawn for the Congress and state Senate in New York State helped upend Democrat candidates.  Democrats had tried to draw their own lines, but New York’s courts ruled them unconstitutional and drew unbiased lines instead.  Those new lines put some Democrats in a bind.  For example, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney was running for re-election in which only about 25% of the voting population was from his old district.  In a big win for the G.O.P., Maloney lost.

Where Democrats had the hardest time was in the suburban areas of New York – those on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley.  How Democrats respond to this growing electoral threat is anyone’s guess, but shrinking majorities are something that should raise their concern.  Political alignments are rarely permanent.

When it came to electoral expectations Republicans, on the other hand, did far better in New York than anywhere else in the country and will consider New York in the “W” column despite coming up short in the statewide races. 

The lessons the governor and the Legislative majorities take from last Tuesday’s results could well dictate the outcome in November 2024.

The World Grapples With Climate Crisis, the Fossil Fuel Industries Fight to Stop Those Efforts

Posted by NYPIRG on November 7, 2022 at 8:48 am

As the nation focused on the midterm elections, the world’s attention has been on Egypt, the location of the COP27 – the meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) – the 27th United Nations Climate Change conference. The conference started November 6th and will continue until November 18th. COP27 is this year’s annual gathering of nations to advance the world’s attempts to minimize the ongoing – and worsening – climate crisis. At these events, countries review and revise their pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions – largely those produced by the burning of oil, coal, and gas.
According to the U.N., since last year’s meetings in Scotland only 26 of the 193 countries have followed through on last year’s promises. Such actions are desperately needed: This year was Europe’s hottest summer in 500 years, a third of Pakistan flooded, the Philippines were hammered by huge storms, and the whole of Cuba is under daily blackouts.

Countries that failed last year to put forward strengthened targets were expected to do so before COP27. Financial and other support for protecting the world’s vulnerable countries is supposed to be near the top of the climate crisis-fighting agenda. Yet, developing countries are not getting the promised assistance, including an annual $100 billion meant to be delivered from 2020 to 2025.

Wealthy nations need to give as much as ten times current levels of funding to help developing countries adapt to climate change or face widespread suffering and displacement as well as increased conflict, according to the U.N.

The war in Ukraine has begun to derail pledges already made. For example, Germany had vowed to completely cease using coal to produce energy by 2030, but it recently stepped up coal production in response to dwindling supplies of gas from Russia.

Undoubtedly, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has scrambled climate plans. However, the ongoing climate crisis does not take a pause because of human conflicts. Ironically, the Russian aggression is being funded by the purchase of Russian fossil fuels – which is contributing to the climate crisis.

In addition to being a big factor in providing financing to the Russian war machine, the roiling energy market has resulted in price gouging by energy interests, fattening the profits of Big Oil and other fossil fuel industries.

For example, the United States’ biggest oil companies – ExxonMobil and Chevron – reported a fourth consecutive quarter of robust profits from high oil and natural gas prices and strong chemical and refining earnings. ExxonMobil’s profit of nearly $20 billion from operations topped the previous quarter’s $17.9 billion. The oil company’s latest quarterly profit was nearly triple what it made in the same period last year. The cumulative takings for the seven biggest private sector oil drillers during the first nine months of 2022 could hit $173 billion. Saudi oil giant Aramco, reported a mind-blowing $42 billion profit in the third quarter alone, making profits so far in 2022 of $130.3 billion, compared to $77.6 billion in 2021.

Those profits not only make executives richer and shareholders happy, they also help fund the industry’s public relations, lobbying, and campaign financing activities.

A report issued last week documented how that spending is playing out in New York. The report (issued by the advocacy group Lil Sis) found that the industry is helping to finance a campaign to undermine the implementation of the state’s climate goals. A few years ago, New York enacted some of the most aggressive programs to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The law, however, delegated setting up the program that would implement those goals to the Climate Action Council (CAC).

Last week’s report identified that the oil industry and its allies have begun an aggressive lobbying effort to block implementation of the CAC’s plans. According to the report their efforts, “have already succeeded in eliminating a proposal from the state budget to ban fossil gas hookups in newly constructed buildings – which was recommended by the Climate Action Council in its draft scoping plan – and are now promoting misinformation to further weaken New York’s agenda as the Climate Action Council holds hearings across the state on its proposed plan.”

Fake coalitions, front groups, and big spending by corporate polluters is, sadly, nothing new. But the swollen profits of Big Oil can add staggering sums to that advocacy. And unlike corporate-shilling advocacy of the past, this one may have globally catastrophic consequences.

We are, after all, talking about an existential threat to the world. Big Oil’s efforts to undermine steps to protect the environment and human health may further enrich the companies and their unprincipled mouthpieces, but for the billions who will be left with incredible misery and early deaths, it is too high a price.

The global conference in Egypt can help keep climate fighting momentum alive, but we all need lawmakers willing to take on the greed of the oil industry and the dishonesty of their public relations mouthpieces. Otherwise, we will all pay dearly and for many decades to come.

New Yorkers Vote on Proposition 1, the Environmental Bond Act

Posted by NYPIRG on October 31, 2022 at 10:58 am

Ten years ago this past weekend, Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast, resulting in the deaths of 44 New Yorkers, flooded 50 miles of New York City land, left 2.5 million residents without power, resulted in $19 billion in damages and lost economic activity, rendered 35,000 residents temporarily or permanently displaced, and caused damage to more than 9,100 homes.

In the decade since then, storms are only getting stronger and more deadly.  Recently, Hurricane Fiona hammered Puerto Rico and the Canadian Atlantic Coast and Hurricane Ian devastated Florida.  Ian was the deadliest hurricane to strike the state of Florida since 1935, killing over 130 in Florida, with regional economic damage estimated to be more than $50 billion.

As the planet heats up from the burning of fossil fuels and other releases, the resulting warmer sea surface temperature intensifies tropical storm wind speeds, giving them the potential to deliver more damage if they make landfall.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted an increase in Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, alongside increased hurricane wind speeds.  Warmer sea temperatures also cause wetter hurricanes, with an estimated 10-15 percent more precipitation.

Global warming is continuing and a hotter planet will lead to deadlier storms – and costs to all of us.

At the state level, New Yorkers are already seeing those rising costs.  A 2022 federal report found that over the past 20 years, New York State experienced so many severe storms due to the climate crisis that it has cost the state $50-$100 billion, and up to $20 billion for just 2021.  Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that it will take $52 billion to protect NY Harbor alone.

Of course, significant policy changes must be enacted to curb and eventually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.  But in the meantime, societies across the world will have to “harden” their infrastructures in order to adapt to more intense storms.

On the ballot for New York voters this election is a question about whether to allow the state to issue bonds to finance capital projects to do just that.  The question is on the back of the ballot that voters receive during the early voting and General Election.

Proposition #1, the “Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act of 2022” provides $4.2 billion in financing for the state to adapt to the threat posed by global warming as well as improve the state’s drinking water infrastructure and other environmental projects.

If approved this year, the Bond Act would provide:

  1. $1.5 billion in climate change mitigation (which includes funds for zero emission school buses);
  2. $1.1 billion in restoration and flood risk reduction;
  3. $650 million in open space land conservation and recreation;
  4. $650 million in water quality improvement and resilient infrastructure.  Many New Yorkers don’t realize that the infrastructure that delivers drinking water is over one hundred years old and still uses dangerous materials such as lead pipes; and,
  5. Requires that 35% of the total funds must be spent in disadvantaged communities.

If approved, Prop #1 positions New York to leverage federal funding already approved in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and Inflation Reduction Act.  The Bond Act could provide the matching funds which would help local government bring more federal dollars into their communities for critical infrastructure upgrades.

Of course, $4.2 billion is a lot of money, but it’s not enough to cover all the costs of climate change as well as upgrading water supply infrastructure. It is, however, a really good start.

When it comes to the worsening climate catastrophe, it’s hard not to get depressed.  But action is warranted, not hand wringing.  Prop #1 moves New York forward in adapting the state to the growing climate threats. 

This year not only are statewide elected officials and lawmakers on the ballot, the environment is too.  Flip over the ballot and show your support.

Democracy in Peril

Posted by NYPIRG on October 24, 2022 at 9:48 am

A poll released by the The New York Times and Siena College Research Institute last week found that over 70 percent of registered voters agreed that democracy was “under threat.”  Given the lies about the 2020 election being “stolen,” such a view is not surprising.  But the poll found that the concerns ran much deeper. 

Most of the survey’s respondents viewed the deepest threat to democracy resulted from government corruption.  That survey result resonates with anyone who has followed ethics, campaign financing, and elections in America.  Put simply, those polled raised the longstanding public concern about the basic functioning of a democracy, as the Times put it; “whether government works on behalf of the people.”

The concern that democracy is threatened by government that does not work on behalf of the people can manifest in many ways, for example issues about whether elections are run to benefit the public at large or more specifically for the benefit of the two major political parties.

That issue raised itself last week with a report over how the Dutchess County Board of Elections is complying with New York State law. 

First some background.  Under New York State law, polling locations must be located on college campuses if 300 or more students who live on campus are registered to vote in New York.  The law states when a “contiguous property of a college or university” has 300 or more registrants, who are registered at that address, the polling place must be provided on the site or at a location “recommended by the college and agreed to by the board of elections.”  Those locations must have been designated by August 1st of 2022.  These college-based polling sites are for the General Election only; the requirement does not apply to the location of early voting places.

Vassar College, located in Poughkeepsie, has about 1,000 registered voters.  In August, the college emailed the BOE requesting a polling site and providing a suitable location on campus.

Nothing happened.

As reported in the Poughkeepsie Journal, as of last week (three weeks before Election Day) the Dutchess County Board of Elections has yet to designate a site because of failure of the Republican and Democrat commissioners to agree on a location.  This failure to follow the law reportedly stems from the Republican Commissioner who simply doesn’t want to agree.

Under New York’s system of running elections, the two major political parties have to agree on an issue of consequence.  When they don’t, gridlock follows.  In this case, that partisan gridlock has blocked the placing of a polling place for Vassar college students – even though the law requires it.

Why is it that months have lapsed between the legal requirement that the polling sites be identified by August 1st and last week?  Apparently, no one in authority seems to care enough about this (other than the college students and apparently the administrators at Vassar) to crack the whip. 

When it comes to youth voting, the Vassar case is just one of too many.  The political class is very willing to have young adults fight in wars, but when it comes to their constitutional right to vote, that willingness too often evaporates.

As the Times poll showed, “whether government works on behalf of the people” is at the heart of public dissatisfaction with their own democracy.  That voter cynicism is too often borne out by the behavior of those who are elected and the partisan – or ideological – motives of public officials.

American democracy has always been a work in progress, with all of us obliged to continue the work of taking care of this grand experiment in self-governance.  Let’s hope that those charged with running Dutchess County’s elections agree to follow the law.