Buried deep in Governor Hochul’s budget plans are measures that can have a big impact on democracy in New York. While virtually anything in a budget can impact democracy, the governor’s budget plans offer measures to reduce the influence of special interests and impact public oversight.
Reducing the influence of big money donors in state elections will bolster democracy in New York. In her budget, the governor proposed $100 million to provide money for the state’s new voluntary system of public financing for candidates running for state office.
Allowing a voluntary system of public financing – a system that rewards candidates who collect a large number of small contributions – has been long advocated by reformers in New York. An early call came from a commission established by Governor Mario Cuomo in the 1980s. That commission – known as the Feerick Commission after its chairman law school dean John Feerick – reviewed the state’s campaign financing system, ethics laws, and public accountability measures. Their reviews, based on research and public hearings, led to the publication of over 20 reports released through the end of the Cuomo era in 1994.
The Feerick Commission was more formally known as the Commission on Government Integrity and was established through the state’s Moreland Act, which grants the governor the authority to establish such an entity in order to root out corruption.
The Feerick Commission’s judgment on New York’s campaign financing system was devastating: The state system, it concluded, was a “disgrace” and an “embarrassment.” The Commission then scolded state leaders for failing to act, “Instead partisan, personal and vested interests have been allowed to come before larger public interests.”
The Feerick Commission called for a voluntary system of public financing and that call had been echoed over the thirty-five years since. In 2020, a new law was approved that instituted many (but not all) of the Feerick Commission recommendations. No longer would New York have the highest campaign contribution limits of any state with limits. Instead, lower contribution limits were approved (although still much higher than the national average) and a voluntary system of public financing was established. The new law went into effect for the next state election cycle, right after the 2022 election. So far, well over 100 candidates have joined the program.
At its core, the new program matches small donor contributions (up to $250) to candidates in state government races (governor, attorney general, comptroller, state legislature) with public resources. For the legislative candidates, the smaller the contribution, the bigger the match. Thus, for the first $50 of a contribution, there is a $12 in public resources-to-$1 in contribution match. Then it’s a ratio of $9-to-$1 for next $100, and finally $8-to-$1 match for the final $100. As a result, a $250 contribution gets $2,300 public matching funds for a total of $2,550.
The governor proposes that the state spend $100 million to provide the matching funds, which experts believe will be adequate for the upcoming legislative elections, if the Legislature agrees.
The governor’s budget plan also proposes spending boosts for the Board of Elections and the state’s new ethics watchdog, the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government.
Unfortunately, the governor did not propose to close the lobbying loophole that allows special interests to secretly spend money to impact the state Senate’s decisions on gubernatorial appointees. Under New York law, for example, spending money to influence the Public Service Commission’s decision on utility rates is considered lobbying, but spending money to influence who is chosen to head the Public Service Commission is not. Such a distinction makes no sense, but it’s the law. Legislation that would have closed that loophole was vetoed by Governor Hochul last year and it is expected that lawmakers will make another run at closing it again.
In one area, the governor’s budget plan cuts a funding request made by a state watchdog. The state Commission on Judicial Conduct is the agency responsible for investigating complaints made against judges. Facing an increasing workload, the Commission had requested $770,000 in additional funding. Yet in her budget plan, the governor cut that request and instead proposed a $184,000 increase.
Similar reductions in the increase in state aid are found throughout the governor’s budget. The Hochul Administration presented a budget that proposes to close a multi-billion-dollar budget gap without raising taxes. Yet, given the world we live in, a world in which democracy is under constant attack, preserving the ability of agency watchdogs to do their jobs should be at – or near – the top of any budget plan. Lawmakers will soon get their chance to finalize the state’s budget plan. Keeping the good proposals, while rejecting the bad, will be a real test of their commitment to protecting New York’s democracy.