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State panel closing in on new taxpayer-funded campaign finance system

ALBANY – New York State is on the verge of enacting some of the boldest remedies to its long-criticized, incumbent-friendly laws governing how political campaigns are financed in a move that could become a national model for other states.

Or not.

A panel, whose members were appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders, is closing in on a final set of changes that critics already are maneuvering to dismiss as gussied-up campaign finance alterations that will leave a system in place favoring powerful incumbents.

Assuming the Public Finance Reform Commission does not stumble and it reaches a consensus by the imposed Dec. 1 deadline, the claim is that its recommendations – including the mechanics for how some future candidates for state office are to be in line for $100 million in annual taxpayer-funded matching grants to help finance their campaigns – will be binding.

But, seldom is anything really binding on the New York State Capitol, and there already are whispers that lawmakers will be pressured to re-examine the issue in 2020, or perhaps later, since the law’s implementation will, under one panel plan, not take effect for people who want to remain or become governor until after the 2022 elections.

The commission is due to issue its final report on Nov. 27 – the day before Thanksgiving. The panel has shown recent signs of some dissent within its ranks, and a public meeting set for Monday this week was postponed.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Already preliminarily killed was a move by at least one commission member to reduce the amount candidates for statewide office can raise from a contributor from about $70,000 presently to $15,000. Jay Jacobs, handpicked by Cuomo to be on the panel, insisted the level should not go below $25,000. Jacobs is also the handpicked – by Cuomo – chairman of the state Democratic Party.

“It’s a huge improvement," Jacobs said in an interview this week of commission plans to cut the donation limit. “They call what we’re doing an incumbent-protection plan. Really? Cutting (the statewide candidate donation limit) by a third doesn’t do that."

But watchdog groups say even if New York drops the limits to what’s being considered, it still will have to blush when it comes to how much it allows deep-pocket donors to give, especially to statewide candidates. And they readily bring out a comparison: Candidates for president of the United States can accept a maximum of $5,600 from a single donor.

“There’s no reason any candidate in New York State needs to raise more money from one donor than the president of the United States," said Alex Camarda of Reinvent Albany.

Apparently gone from the commission’s interest level was a move to ban “fusion voting," in which candidates in New York are now able to add votes from multiple parties – say the Democratic Party and Working Families Party – to get a combined vote total.

But Jacobs, and other commissioners, are pushing a plan to sharply raise the number of votes a party needs to secure automatic ballot positions. A party’s gubernatorial candidate must garner 50,000 votes in order for that party to be guaranteed a place on ballots for a four-year period. Jacobs has proposed pushing that level to 250,000 votes and must be met every two years in gubernatorial and presidential election contests.

Minor parties, including those who have squabbled with Cuomo, say the move is an effort to kill off minor parties. Under current voting trends, the idea would comfortably leave the Democratic and GOP parties on ballots; it would also keep the Conservative Party on ballots – a head-scratcher for some Democrats.

“I tossed out the 250,000 number and everybody’s hair got on fire," Jacobs said. He said it was a starting point and that the final number will end up maybe half that level.

Jacobs says the higher threshold is needed, in part, to address affordability problems with a public campaign finance matching program – capped, for now, at $100 million annually – that could become overwhelmed if too many candidates from minor parties qualify. As an example, Jacobs cited the special election in February for public advocate of New York City – which has long had a public matching program for local candidates – that featured 17 candidates on the ballot, 11 of whom qualified for matching funds.

The higher vote threshold plan “will in no way kill any credible party," Jacobs said. “If you’re a real party and there’s real support out there, the thresholds I’m looking to advance are attainable."

The plan is being put together by nine people, seven of whom were appointed by either Cuomo or Democratic legislative leaders. It was created in the April 1 budget when Cuomo and lawmakers could not strike their own campaign finance deal; pushing the matter off to an unelected panel is the subject of a lawsuit that will be heard by a state judge in mid-December.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, an Ontario County Republican, has one panel appointee. He says there is still much that can change in the final plan, but that he is OK with some emerging elements, such as boosting the party ballot placement threshold beyond 50,000 votes.

But Kolb believes the commission is just “nibbling around the edges” in looking at how to improve New York’s campaign finance rules. Nothing, he said, is being done to address sky-high spending by Super PACs and unions. “They talk about big money and they try to focus on corporate donors or wealthy people, but political action committees and unions are just as much a part of campaign finances as anybody,’’ he said.

The GOP leader believes there is a basic fault with the commission’s work: public financing. “If you ask taxpayers a direct question – Do you support using your income taxes or business taxes to pay for political campaigns? – I guarantee you are going to get a negative answer,’’ Kolb said.

But watchdog groups say a well-structured public finance system will go a long way to reduce the power of high-roller donors and boost the ability of challengers to take on incumbents. It’s the structure the commission is considering that has some of these groups concerned. A key element to be decided is at what level New York will match donations, and whether certain matching rules apply, for instance, to donations received by state lawmakers from constituents living in their districts.

The commission last week preliminarily OK'd donor limits of $5,000 – for primaries and general elections – for Assembly candidates and $10,000 for Senate candidates.

In the meeting in Westchester County, the panel stalled on how to set limits for statewide candidates; David Previte, the sole panel member appointed by Senate Republicans, called the $25,000 level Jacobs proposed “grossly” high. Another member, longtime election lawyer Henry Berger, agreed that amount was too high, but the commission had to recognize the level of outside money being spent for and against candidates in New York.

“We can’t have it that the only voice that can’t be heard in the campaign is the candidate’s voice," Berger said.

In an interview, Jacobs said the commission’s work has been made somewhat more bumpy because it has held public deliberating sessions. That has resulted in a hodgepodge of specific ideas brought forth by panel members only to be criticized by watchdog groups and editorial boards for just being mentioned, he said.

“The things we’re doing make a lot of sense," Jacobs said of the commission’s work.

“Overwhelmingly, when you look at this plan, and do so with a realistic eye, you’ll see how it has improved dramatically the current system," Jacobs said of the emerging plan by the panel.

Lawmakers, who will be directly affected by the commission's recommendations, are largely taking a wait-and-see position until the final report emerges next week.

"It has been a long time since New York State has reconsidered so many of the by now ancient rules and regulations that play a large role in governing our electoral process,'' said Assemblyman Charles Lavine, a Nassau County Democrat and chairman of the Assembly's election law committee.

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