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Watchdog groups: state facing key opportunity to fix campaign finance laws

ALBANY – A trailblazing report, ordered by Gov. Cuomo, rebuked New York State’s political campaign financing system as a “disgrace” and in need of urgent change.

Urgent is a relative term. The report was issued in 1988, by Gov. Mario Cuomo, the current governor's father.

“In the three decades that have followed, little change has come to New York’s laws and rules for financing campaigns for elective office," said a review released Thursday by the New York Public Interest Research Group.

But change could be coming.

Later this year, a newly created government panel is all but guaranteed to unveil a new kind of taxpayer-funded campaign finance system. NYPIRG and other government watchdog groups say the opportunity is ripe to turn upside down the present system dominated by deep pocket donors whose contributions to statewide officials and lawmakers end up giving them a disproportionate share of power in Albany.

"Somebody's got to pay for campaigns. Right now, it's Albany's political elite that underwrites campaigns and then expects favors when lawmakers are elected,'' said Blair Horner, NYPIRG’s executive director and author of the report released Thursday.

The new report sheds a bit more light on a well-known Albany truism: special interests, businesses and wealthier individuals dominate giving to successful political candidates. In 2018, such donations by organized interests, corporations, LLCs and individuals giving more than $200, accounted for more than 90 percent of contributions received by winning Senate and Assembly campaigns.

In the Democratic-dominated Assembly, 46% of donations in 2018 to winning candidates came from political action committees and limited liability companies, the report found.

In all for 2018, $41 million was raised by winning candidates for Assembly and Senate seats. That’s an average of $650,000 per lawmaker in the 213-seat Legislature, a number skewed by the fact that many incumbents spend next to nothing in uncontested re-election bids.

The new review found that 40% of fundraisers held by state elected officials occur in March – the period during the annual six-month legislative session when the state budget is being put together.

NYPIRG and groups that endorsed the report – the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Citizens Union and Reinvent Albany – said the panel now studying ways to bring more public financing to political campaigns needs to structure its final plan in a way that shifts its reliance from "a small number of big contributors to one that relies on a large number of small donors."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and lawmakers earlier this year could not decide on their own, so they turned to a panel – whose members are picked by Cuomo and lawmakers – to determine by Dec. 1  how a taxpayer-financed campaign system will be run. The system they create will be voluntary for candidates, and has a total spending cap of $100 million. The panel’s determination will become law, unless Cuomo and lawmakers in December agree to change the ideas.

The commission holds its first public hearing next week in New York City; the fourth of five hearings will be held Oct. 29 in Buffalo.

The watchdog groups are urging the state panel to:

• create at least a 6-to-1 public dollar match on small donations – some have proposed it for donations of $175 or less – for primary and general election contests along with an independent body to run and enforce the system. New York City created a public campaign finance system for local candidates there; it now has an 8-to-1 public match on donations up to $250.

• end New York’s bragging rights with the nation’s highest donation cap (among the 39 states with such limits). The $69,700 an individual can give a statewide candidate in New York State is 10 times the average limit of the 38 other states, the report found. The groups want the limits for lawmakers and statewide officials lowered.

• impose limits on now-unlimited donations to political party “housekeeping” accounts, which are supposed to be used for party-building and other routine costs of a party.

• end the sometimes “brazen” conflicts that have surfaced in various scandals over the years by imposing restrictions on political giving by lobbyists and entities receiving government contracts. The report noted the Buffalo Billion scandal and the mega and timely donations made by Louis Ciminelli and his family to Cuomo when the Buffalo businessman’s company was pushing to become the “preferred developer” for big projects, including the solar plant at RiverBend. (Ciminelli was among those found guilty last year in a bid-rigging case.)

New York’s campaign finance laws are notoriously porous. Individual donors do not, for instance, have to identify their employer; the Federal Election Commission began requiring that of donors back in the 1970s.

The Brennan Center’s Democracy Program at New York University’s law school earlier this year found that donations under $175 to New York campaigns accounted for less than 5% of total donations to state candidates and that, in 2018, the 100 top donors gave more than the approximately 137,000 small donors combined.

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