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New York Campaign Finance Laws Fall Short

Brennan Center releases new research that details the problems plaguing New York State’s campaign finance system.

February 5, 2008

For Immediate Release: 

February 4, 2008


Mike Webb, 212–998–6746

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, 212–998–6025


Today, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law released new research that details the problems plaguing New York State’s campaign finance system.  The new article shows how the State could follow New York City’s lead and model new laws after the City’s public finance program.


Published in the Albany Government Law Review, the research explains how state leaders should move to close donation loopholes, lower donation limits, improve enforcement of the finance laws, and establish a statewide public funding system.  In a letter sent to Gov. Spitzer, Assembly Speaker Silver and Senate Majority Leader Bruno, the Brennan Center notes, “New York State’s campaign finance regime is among the least advanced systems nationally and forms a stark contrast with New York City’s own admirable system of public funding for elections.”


The new research, which was written and compiled by the Brennan Center’s Ciara Torres-Spelliscy and Ari Weisbard, shows:


  • Aggregate contribution limits for individuals is $150,000 annually – or more than 3 times the median annual income for households in New York ($46,659).  This limit is more than 10 times the $4,600 individuals can give to presidential candidates.
  • Although nearly half the states ban corporate contributions, New York allows up to an aggregate of $5,000 per year.  However, affiliated and subsidiary corporations can also donate money, which effectively makes it legal for companies with complex corporate structures to multiply their influence.
  • New York allows unlimited donations to “housekeeping accounts” which accept money ostensibly to maintain party headquarters and staff and to hold activities that do not promote specific candidates.  Others have reported that $53.2 million was given to “housekeeping accounts” between 1999 and 2006.  The new report shows how one corporation was able to give $395,000 beyond the acceptable limit.
  • A lack of clear rules on how campaign contributions can be spent results in abuses that allow candidates to spend the money on personal items such as a pool cover or car expenses.
  • The state must eliminate “pay-to-play” conflicts that allow contractors to donate to elected officials who may have influence over state contracting and regulatory decisions.  Similarly, contributions from lobbyists must be strictly regulated to reduce concerns about corruption.
  •  The maximum civil fine for violating campaign finance disclosure rules is only $500 and those who illegally exceed the limits are not subject to any fines at all.  Higher fines and additional enforcement staff are needed to act as more effective deterrents.


“Governor Spitzer was correct when, on his first day in office, he outlined an agenda to reform many of the deficiencies in the state’s campaign finance regime,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.  “Last year, our state leaders came close to revising the finance laws, but failed to reach a final accord.  The Brennan Center will continue our efforts to make sure those reforms happen and that we finally provide meaningful financing to executive and legislative candidates.”


The full law review article, “What Albany Could Learn From New York City: A Model of Meaningful Campaign Finance Reform in Action” and a summary of the findings are available here.


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