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Analysis

Why is New York’s Governor Undermining Public Financing Just After Championing It?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo must act to finally bring about groundbreaking campaign finance reform that gives everyday voters more of a voice.

This piece was origin­ally published by the Daily News.

Here’s what you won’t find in Gov. Cuomo’s new budget: fund­ing for New York’s new public finan­cing program. That’s quite an omis­sion, consid­er­ing that the program would­n’t exist if he hadn’t pushed for it.

Last spring, the governor, along with legis­lat­ive lead­ers, estab­lished a commis­sion to reform campaign finance laws. In Decem­ber, the commis­sion­ers produced a solid, if imper­fect, small-donor public finan­cing plan designed to coun­ter­act the wealth­i­est donors’ power in Albany.

But the plan also contained entirely unne­ces­sary restric­tions on minor party ballot access, embed­ded at the last minute by the governor’s appointee and likely to endanger some of the governor’s most vocal crit­ics. The governor, with the Legis­lature, should make a simple fix to save public finan­cing from lawsuits chal­len­ging these restric­tions. And he must provide the modest star­tup funds neces­sary to build out the reform that New York­ers need and want.

There is no ques­tion the commis­sion’s mandate was crit­ic­ally import­ant. As Cuomo has said, “Every day, ordin­ary New York­ers struggle to make their voices heard in our polit­ical system. No matter the issue, candid­ates are incentiv­ized to focus on large dona­tions over small ones. The only way to truly fix this prob­lem is to insti­tute a public finan­cing system for polit­ical campaigns.”

With sky-high contri­bu­tion limits, wealthy donors have given virtu­ally unlim­ited amounts to Albany pols. In the 2018 cycle, just 100 big donors gave more to state candid­ates than all the estim­ated 137,000 small donors combined. These candid­ates raised only 5% of their money from small donors.

The commis­sion created a volun­tary small-donor match­ing program that lowers contri­bu­tion limits and boosts the value of modest contri­bu­tions from regu­lar New York­ers. The program could “have a dramatic impact on the sources of elec­tion money in New York State elec­tions,” and key provi­sions could become “templates for adapt­a­tion and use” else­where in the coun­try, accord­ing to the Campaign Finance Insti­tute, the nation’s lead­ing nonpar­tisan expert on the monet­ary effects of campaign finance policy.

Had it exis­ted in 2018, nearly 75% of Assembly fundrais­ing and more than 50% of Senate fundrais­ing could have come from small donors. Effects on campaigns for statewide office were less drastic but still signi­fic­ant.

Notable innov­a­tions include rules for legis­lat­ive candid­ates that take into account diverse income levels across the state’s districts, rumored to have been pushed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. These rules would lower barri­ers for candid­ates in low-income districts to parti­cip­ate in the program and incentiv­ize legis­lat­ive candid­ates to seek support from their own constitu­ents.

The commis­sion decided that the program would be ready begin­ning the day after the Novem­ber 2022 elec­tion, reas­on­ably conclud­ing that it would take time to build candid­ate compli­ance soft­ware and create detailed regu­la­tions. Tech­no­logy devel­op­ment and hiring new offi­cials to enable this build-out are supposed to start this year.

Even in tough times, a minimal invest­ment in the tens of thou­sands of dollars — a frac­tion of the state’s $178 billion budget — is worth the public bene­fit to be gained by dimin­ish­ing lawmakers’ reli­ance on big donors. As the governor’s More­land Commis­sion to Invest­ig­ate Public Corrup­tion concluded in 2013, “the elim­in­a­tion of just one waste­ful tax expendit­ure or one unne­ces­sary spend­ing program could cover the full cost of the [public finan­cing] program.”

Other conclu­sions by the public finan­cing commis­sion were demon­strably wrong. Commis­sioner Jay Jacobs claimed that nearly trip­ling ballot access thresholds for small parties was neces­sary to keep frivol­ous candid­ates from bank­rupt­ing public finan­cing. But no evid­ence suppor­ted this supposed need, nor did any exist­ing program limit ballot access to reduce costs. In fact, the exper­i­ence of long­stand­ing public finan­cing programs and analysis using state campaign finance data show that minor party candid­ates would gener­ate negli­gible costs. More routine issues, such as restric­tions on certain donors and lower­ing contri­bu­tion limits still further, remain areas for improve­ment in the New York plan.

But the commis­sion’s work is done. Minor parties have filed legal chal­lenges to the plan because of the ballot restric­tions. It is now the governor who, joined by the Legis­lature, can easily rescue public finan­cing from this litig­a­tion with a single para­graph amend­ing the law. He can also ensure New York­ers’ faith in his commit­ment to reform by provid­ing the minimal fund­ing needed to get the program going in time for 2022.

For years, he and other lead­ers said they wanted a volun­tary public finan­cing system to give regu­lar New York­ers more of a voice. He claimed the polit­ical system itself was the road­b­lock. Today, there are no more excuses. The ques­tion for the governor’s legacy is whether he will finally bring ground­break­ing campaign finance reform to the state or let the commis­sion and its failed program prove his crit­ics right.