New York’s Public Financing Commission Wraps up Its Work, but Fails to Deliver Real Reform

Posted by NYPIRG on December 2, 2019 at 8:53 am

New York looks like it will have some form of a voluntary system for publicly financing state government elections. Unfortunately, far too much of the program is unnecessarily complicated and untested.  In addition, while the commission lowers New York State’s ridiculously high campaign contribution limits, it still allows donations far in excess of those allowed for runs for federal office, including the President.  Lastly, the commission has advanced new schemes to make it harder for minor political parties to operate.

Before getting into the details, let’s recap how we got here.  The commission was originally established as part of the state budget deal that came together in late March.  The law required the commission to finish its work by December 1st, just eight months later.  At that time, Governor Cuomo promised that the commission’s work would result in a program that was a model for the nation.

However, when it came to setting up the commission, the governor and the state legislative leaders dragged their feet.  The governor and the Legislature finally appointed commissioners in early July, allowing three months to be frittered away.  When the appointments were made, the governor inserted the head of the state Democratic Party into the commission, an unusual move that put the head of one political party involved in developing the campaign rules for all other parties – an obvious conflict of interest.

With only three months to go, the commission held its first meeting.  At that meeting, the head of the Democratic Party pushed hard for the commission to change the rules for how minor political parties operated instead of conducting a focused public debate on creating a system of public financing of campaigns for state elective office.

At a series of public forums, experts, academics and advocates testified that the commission should focus its efforts on adapting the well regarded New York City public financing system for all state races.  The City’s program has existed for over three decades and is widely viewed as a model for the nation. 

But the commission ignored that advice and instead advanced an untested, complicated program that is dramatically different from the road-tested City system.

It seemed like the governor, the legislative leaders, and at least some of the commission, were hell-bent on undermining their own work.

So what did they come up with?

The commission established a system of public financing, but different from what advocates recommended.  The New York City system allows contributions up to $250 to be matched by public funding at a ratio of $8 to $1.  So a $100 donation, for example, turns into a $900 contribution. 

Instead, the commission approved a plan that has a complicated sliding scale matching system.  For contributions up to $50, there will be a $12 to $1 match; for the next $100 a $9 to $1 match; and for the next $100, an $8 to $1 match.  Matches are only allowed for contributions up to $250 from donors living in the district.  Could be a good idea, but untested and extremely complex to administer and enforce.

The commission lowers campaign contribution limits a lot, but they are still high.  For example, under current law, a donor can make a contribution to governor of up to $69,700, a shockingly high number.  Under the commission plan, that number drops to $18,000.  But the national average for gubernatorial candidates is up to $7,000 and no one can contribute more than $6,000 for candidates for President.  New York City limits contributions for Mayor to no more than $2,000 for candidates running in the public financing program.  $18,000 campaign contributions for statewide office are still way too high.

Under the commission’s plan the New York State Board of Elections will administer the program, although with some tweaks.  The State Board of Elections is a political creature – run by the two major political parties – and has been viewed as ineffective. 

And, the commission added one more unnecessary measure by advancing new obstacles for minor political parties to effectively participate in New York elections. 

Instead of building on a successful New York City program, the commission instead offers an untested and incredibly complicated public financing scheme, allows high campaign contribution limits, continues to rely on a politically-driven entity for administration and enforcement, and establishes new obstacles to minor party participation.  It’s clear that the commission failed to do its job.

Under the law, the governor and state lawmakers have until December 22nd to fix the commission’s work.  They must fix it so that New York State has a program that is truly a model for the nation.