Update July 3, 2019: Leaders in Albany have named the commissioners charged with designing a public financing program for New York State elections that incentivizes candidates to seek more small donations. If the commission does its job, New York State will have a small donor public financing system, which would mark the most significant campaign finance reform in the United States since the 2010 Citizens United ruling. By law, the commissioners must create a public financing system for the state by December 1.
In a potentially historic step toward countering big money in politics, the New York State Assembly and Senate passed a budget bill on Monday for the new fiscal year that establishes a commission charged with creating a small donor public financing program for statewide and state legislative offices by the end of 2019. The bill, which Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign into law, authorizes up to $100 million per year in funding for the program.
The budget bill establishes a commission with a clear mandate: “the State shall establish a system of voluntary public campaign financing for statewide and state legislative public offices.” With a framework outlined in the bill, the commission now has the opportunity to create the largest small donor public financing program in the United States.
“With today’s vote, New York State is closer than it has ever been to a robust public financing program—the best antidote available to wealth’s dominance over our politics since Citizens United,” said Brennan Center President Michael Waldman.
The most powerful way to tackle the influence of wealthy donors on politics
Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United, which permitted corporations to spend unlimited money on elections, the financing of U.S. elections (and thus political power) has shifted toward a small group of wealthy mega-donors who make multimillion-dollar contributes to candidates. A small-donor public financing system would provide political candidates with a way to spend less time chasing big checks from a handful of wealthy donors—and more time listening to their constituents. Under this reform, small donations from citizens to participating candidates are matched by multiple matching public funds.
New York is uniquely positioned to lead the way on small donor public financing as a state in which the wealthiest donors play a particularly outsized role in funding campaigns. In a December 2018 analysis, the Brennan Center found that in the 2018 election cycle, just 100 individuals donated more to state candidates than all 137,000 small donors combined.
In addition, small donors made up only 5 percent of all donors to statewide and legislative races.
Support for small donor public financing has steadily increased in recent months. Leading up to Monday’s budget bill announcement, the Brennan Center played a key role in Fair Elections for New York, a coalition of more than 200 organizations that represents a broad spectrum of New York stakeholders, including community, labor, environmental, faith, and tenant groups. And at the national level, small donor public financing is one of the reforms outlined in the For the People Act, a sweeping election reform and ethics bill that recently passed in the House of Representatives and has been introduced in the Senate.
“This is a massive first step for real change and a credit to the incredible work of the Fair Elections for New York coalition,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “It offers a powerful answer to the Supreme Court's awful Citizens United decision and the ridiculous power that big money has in Albany and U.S. politics more generally.”
Will the commission deliver on its mandate?
The creation of a commission in the state budget bill is a major achievement and marks a meaningful step toward reforming New York’s campaign finance system. State lawmakers now must work to appoint a commission that will deliver on the promise of a full public financing system.
Under the terms of the budget bill, the commission will include nine members, with two each appointed each by Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. In addition, the two minority party leaders will each appoint one commission member. And the ninth and final commission member will be jointly appointed by Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins, and Heastie. The appointed commission will be required to hold a public hearing on its finding and recommendations and to produce a public report by December 1—one that becomes binding unless modified by December 22.
In the next few weeks, New York lawmakers can demonstrate their commitment to public financing by making all nine appointments to the commission swiftly and by appointing qualified, independent members who have a record of public service and expertise in public financing. The selection process should solicit a commission that is representative of the state’s diversity, factoring for both urban/rural and upstate/downstate constituencies. In carrying out its mandate, the commission itself should conduct a transparent and participatory process. This would involve public hearings that are open to all New Yorkers and interim reports to allow for public responses to the commission’s deliberations before the final recommendations are issued.
A historic achievement is within reach
New York could soon make history and become a nationwide leader on campaign finance reform if the state’s leaders and the appointed commission uphold their mandate for enacting a small donor public financing system. This achievement is all the more notable given both the strong initial opposition to the reform and the diversity of the coalition behind its growing support.
“With a respected commission committed to its mission and to public accountability, historic progress is in our grasp: the boldest public financing program in the nation, and transformative change for democracy in New York,” said Waldman.
If the commission fails to carry out its mandate, it would represent a broken promise to the people of New York—and a betrayal of the clear legal mandate that has already been outlined in the state budget. All eyes will be on the commission and on the lawmakers in Albany to see if they will deliver.
(Image: Getty/Drew Angerer)