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Analysis

New York State Budget Mandates Public Financing of Elections

The budget bill charges a commission to create a small donor public financing program by the end of 2019.

April 1, 2019

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: Drew Angerer/Getty)