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$100M taxpayer-funded campaign finance system moves one step closer to law

ALBANY – A panel controlled by Democratic appointees has given the final OK to the workings of a $100 million public financing program for political candidates in New York while simultaneously making it harder for minor parties to automatically qualify for positions on the ballot.

The New York State Public Campaign Financing Commission on Monday wrapped up its three-month sprint of public meetings with votes to lower contribution limits for those candidates who participate in a public campaign financing system, though still sharply higher than many states and even for those running for president of the United States.

Critics dismissed it as a plan put together by representatives of powerful incumbents, led by Democrats who now control Albany, at the expense of future minor party and independent candidates.

The panel, created this year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and lawmakers after they failed to cut their own election law deal, will issue its final report by Dec. 1. Lawmakers then have until mid-December to return to Albany to change the panel’s work or they automatically go into law.

There is nothing, however, to stop lawmakers and Cuomo next year or whenever from changing anything the commission developed.

The legality of having an unelected group enact major election law changes already has been challenged in state court.

The program will not be in place for the next statewide elections in 2022, and its total annual costs will be capped, for now, at $100 million in taxpayer matching grants for all candidates. It also grows the bureaucracy at unknown levels; one board member said the plan requires “a much bigger unit” within the state Board of Elections to administer and regulate the new initiative. A new seven-person paid board, composed of Democratic and Republican appointees, will oversee the public financing components.

A statewide candidate, under the new program, will be eligible for up to $7 million in taxpayer matching grants to fund primary and general election campaigns.

The matching program varies by office being sought, but the board approved a measure to have the state match donations of $250 or less – a route intended to encourage candidates to engage more small donors.

“Matchable” donations are those made between $5 and $250, and non-matchable include loans, transfers from other politicians' campaigns, donations from lobbyists or in-kind contributions, such as providing food for a candidate’s event.

The board lowered current campaign donation limits for those participating in the program. Statewide candidates can get up to $70,000 from individual donors; the board Monday set the new limit at $18,000, down from $25,000 pushed by board member Jay Jacobs, who is also Cuomo’s hand-picked state Democratic Party chairman.

Individual donations to Senate candidate donations, now at $19,300, will be capped at $10,000 apiece.

For Assembly candidates, well, that got muddled before being settled. The panel last week set the cap at $5,000, down from the present $9,400 limit on Assembly donations. On Monday morning, a motion to revisit last week’s vote and raise the new level to $6,000 was rejected. An hour later, in walked a tardy commission member – a Cuomo appointee. The motion was brought back up and, rather matter-of-factly, the higher, $6,000 was approved without any real explanation why it was needed.

Among the most controversial tasks the panel approved was an increase in the number of votes that a party must receive every two years in order to automatically have a place on the ballot. A party’s candidate for governor – for a race held once every four years – must get 50,000 votes. The new requirement sets it at 130,000 votes, or 2% of the total vote, whichever is higher, every two years in gubernatorial and presidential races.

In a room at Westchester Community College where the panel met, a small but noisy crowd immediately started booing and yelling. Among the loudest critics of the higher voter threshold is the Working Families Party, a liberal party with which Cuomo has had long chilly relations. That party – as well as those such as the Green Party, Women’s Equality Party – would not make it on the ballot if their numbers of votes their candidates received in part gubernatorial elections continue in the future.

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It would leave, based on the 2018 elections, only the Democratic, Republican and Conservative parties with automatic ballot placements.

“It’s a troubling issue," said board member John Nonna, who was appointed by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. He backed the idea as a compromise in order to get approved the larger piece of the panel’s work: public financing of campaigns.

“We’re not looking to target any party,’’ Jacobs said. He said any “credible” party will be able to attain the new threshold numbers and that the measure was important or a flood of candidates seeking taxpayer assistance with their campaigns could bankrupt the new system.

The Working Families Party, which backed actress and activist Cynthia Nixon against Cuomo in last year’s Democratic Party primary for governor, said revenge was at play Monday. The small but influential party called the tougher ballot rules “a power grab by the governor and his allies to consolidate power and weaken independent progressive political organizing."

Marc Dunlea, a longtime Green Party leader, took to Twitter during the board’s meeting.

“Dems are only able to lower statewide contribution limits by 28% but they can more than double thresholds for ballot status and triple the threshold for statewide independents to get on the ballot. Cuomo and state legislative leaders believe voters will let them get away with it," he wrote. [The 28% figure refers to how much the commission lowered a previous plan to set statewide candidate donation limits at $25,000. Jacobs notes the actual decrease under the final, agreed-to dollar limit level for statewide candidates compared with current law is 75%.]

Some of the commission’s work was hardly based on any kind of study, and dollar amounts and voting amounts seemed to be tossed out as if the event were an auction.

At one point, a motion was offered to change from 15,000 to 45,000 the number of signatures independent candidates running for statewide office needed to qualify for a place on the ballot.

“This is not an unreasonable effort," Jacobs told his fellow panel members of his idea, which, admittedly, would make it harder for candidates by often-unknown organizations – with names such as the Unity Party or the Rent Is Too Damn High party – to get on the ballot. Such a winnowing is not unreasonable, backers said, to protect taxpayer money by a rash of unknown candidates from at-times unknown groups rushing to the ballot to become eligible for public matching dollars to finance their campaigns.

The plan was rejected.

An alternative was offered: 25,000 signatures. Rejected.

Another compromise motion: 30,000 signatures. Rejected, too.

Then, the board took a 25-minute break with the microphones and the video stream turned off.

When the panel returned before the public, one of the original no votes – an appointee of Senate GOP Leader John Flanagan – asked for the motion to be reconsidered, saying he hadn't had time before to think things through. After a quick explanation by the sponsor for the idea’s need, the original 45,000 signature requirement idea was approved.

Two of the panel members said they voted yes believing that a court will likely overturn the change because the commission was not charged by the Legislature and Cuomo with looking at such changes in the election law.

The entire package was approved 7-2, with the no votes coming from the only two Republican appointees on the panel.

Commission members used terms like "compromise" and "good starting ground" to describe the end product.

Critics, however, say the election law changes keep in place big donation possibilities not only to individual candidates but to political parties; one group noted parties will still be able to bring in "virtually uncapped" contributions, which in turn they can pump into efforts to help candidates.

Fair Elections for New York, a coalition of union, community and religious organizations, said the commission's product fell woefully short of the election law changes that are needed in New York and said the panel "inappropriately moved to kill or severely wound New York's minor parties.'' It called on legislative leaders to bring lawmakers back to Albany "to fix the commission's shortcomings" before its plans technically become non-binding in late December.

Reinvent Albany, a watchdog group, said the commission mistakenly left in place big donation limits, a "flawed" state elections board to oversee enforcement of the campaign finance laws and ignored calls to restrict donations by entities and individuals with business before state government. The group said the commission did some good, but did not listen to the "enormous public outcry to fundamentally reduce the role of big money" in New York State politics.

The commission's end product, said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, "represents a setback, not a step forward.'' She said lawmakers should return to Albany prior to the 2020 regular session start in January and kill the commission's plan and re-start a process to "get it right."

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