ALBANY – Before state budget negotiations conclude, lawmakers must decide whether to fund a program that would dramatically change how their re-election campaigns are financed.
When the new program begins, small donations to candidates for statewide office or the Legislature will be matched with taxpayer dollars, a change meant to encourage candidates' reliance on small donors and reduce the sway of major ones. Candidates already have begun enrolling in the new statewide, publicly funded elections program ahead of its first planned run in the 2024 elections.
But advocates for the program are concerned it could be defunded or delayed past 2024, particularly if state legislators fear it will hurt their re-election odds.
Two issues – bail and housing – have dominated state budget talks that are now running three weeks past an April 1 deadline. But with the impasse over those issues breaking, a host of issues with lesser profiles will be hashed out, including whether to fund or delay publicly financed elections.
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Democrats have historically been more ideologically disposed to the idea than Republicans, and Democrats hold supermajorities in both the Assembly and Senate. Still, some Democrats in both conferences have privately expressed discomfort with the new program, which was created under a 2020 state law pushed through by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Assembly Democrats had initially expressed concern that an ongoing legislative redistricting process could make the program untenable for 2024, though Speaker Carl Heastie said in late March that “the issue of the Assembly lines is not a factor” and there are “ways to deal with it.”
Some lawmakers are confused about the new program's rules. Primarily, they worry about whether an entity run out of the State Board of Elections will be able to handle administering them. And because the new law lowers donation limits for lawmakers, go-to sources of contributions, such as lobbyists and unions, will be able to give far less. Instead, veteran lawmakers unaccustomed to broadly soliciting contributions may well have to expand their networks.
Some advocates for the program believe the main issue is that public matching funds will even the electoral odds between between incumbents – who historically have enjoyed a fundraising advantage – and challengers.
"There is no reason to delay or defund this program other than incumbents' fear of competition," said Karen Wharton, Democracy Coalition Coordinator for Citizen Action of New York, a left-leaning nonprofit that is active in state electoral campaigns and at times backs challenges to incumbents. "Legislators can cave to those fears, or they can fulfill the promise they made to voters and continue leading the nation on campaign finance reform and build a stronger democracy."
Even with the fundraising advantage, veteran Assembly Democrats have lost primaries in recent years, often to candidates running to their political left and backed by the Democratic Socialists of America. In Assembly primaries, where only a few thousands voters may determine the outcome, the matching funds program would allow challengers to run more robust campaigns.
Bronx Democratic Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz faced such a primary challenge in 2022, but easily prevailed. In an interview, Dinowitz said he did not think fear of primaries would play a major role in whether the Assembly funds the program this year. He said candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists often gain out-of-state contributions – donations that would not be matched with taxpayer funds under the new program.
The campaign arm of Assembly Democrats also has an unusual policy of spending to help incumbents in primaries. Under the new law, the significant fundraising powers of such party committees remains untouched, giving Assembly Democratic incumbents one significant leg up.
In the State Senate, primaries are often less of a concern for Democrats than general elections. In recent cycles, Democrats have enjoyed a fundraising advantage over Republicans in swing districts. That could be leveled to a degree by the matching funds program, although Senate Democrats' own, well-funded party committee will continue to be an advantage.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in February that she was "aware of a variety of issues that people have brought up” about the program by her members.
“I think it's no secret that there are members in both houses that have concerns about the program,” said State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Senate Elections Committee. “Like any other program that you are starting from scratch, and certainly one of this scope, there are always going to be administrative issues. There's always going to be trepidation about partaking in a new system. But delaying to me is not a solution to those problems. The solution is identifying the areas that need work and us (in the Legislature) getting to work, while also resourcing the program to be ready to go in 2024.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul has proposed including $14.5 million in the budget for the Public Campaign Finance Board, the new state entity overseeing the program, and a $25 million pool of money that would be an installment into the matching funds program. (The $25 million was far less than the $100 million requested by the new board.) In mid-March, one-house budget resolutions from the Senate and Assembly mirrored Hochul’s plan.
Douglas Kellner, the Democratic co-chair of the State Board of Elections and a member of the new board, said he was “not aware of any budget negotiations that would modify Governor Hochul’s proposal to fund the state public campaign finance program.”
On Tuesday, the three chairs of a 2013 state anti-corruption commission wrote a letter urging Stewart-Cousins, Heastie and Hochul to adopt the program without delay.
“In 2013, we concluded that ‘the need for reform, now, is clear,’ ” wrote the former co-chairs of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, Kathleen Rice, William Fitzpatrick and Milton Williams. “Ten years later, public campaign financing remains crucial to restore New Yorkers’ trust in their democracy. It cannot wait.” The letter was also signed by the panel’s former chief of investigations, Danya Perry.
The Moreland Commission was formed by Cuomo in 2013 after the Legislature refused to pass a publicly funded elections bill. In a preliminary report, which focused on alleged corruption in the Legislature, the panel said it had collected evidence showing that “access to elected officials comes at a price."
“One of our goals with the Moreland Commission was to help level the playing field,” Williams said in an interview. “It’s our position that with adequate funding for New York’s program, it will be the most robust public campaign finance initiative in the country. We want to make sure it proceeds.”
State legislators will likely recall, however, that the Moreland Commission had its own issues: Cuomo was accused of interfering in its investigations, prompting a federal investigation into the panel itself.
Skeptics of the new elections program point to the fact that, because of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, outside groups may spend unlimited amounts supporting or opposing candidates. In 2022, Republican-aligned groups supporting Hochul’s opponent flooded the airwaves with ads.
The new program could limit candidates' ability to respond to such attacks. For instance, Hochul could accept nearly $70,000 per individual donor last election, but under the new program, only $18,000.
Dinowitz has introduced a bill attempting to give candidates greater fundraising power.
Under the current law, a $250 donation to an Assembly candidate would spur $2,300 in additional taxpayer matching funds to that candidate. But a donation over $250 receives no matching funds at all, a cutoff that is meant to spur reliance on small dollar contributions of $250 or less. Dinowitz's bill would make it so much larger contributions – up to the legal limits for various offices – would also see the first $250 matched with taxpayer funds.
“They will match up to $250, but if someone contributes $251, they won't match any of it,” Dinowitz said. “It seems incongruous.”