A commission formed to create a public campaign financing system for New York elections reversed course this week, during a vote on how to structure a matching donor system.
Advocates of a public system say the decision makes it more likely that the ultimate plan will result in a system that no candidate will ever use, and they believe that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic-led State Assembly are behind the change.
The commission, made up people appointed by Cuomo and legislative leaders, had been working toward a system for statewide races based on New York City’s decades old and largely successful system. It would include a 6-to-1 matching system for donations of up to $250, with an overall limit on how much public money each candidate could receive. The commissioners had already taken preliminary votes to begin to structure that system.
But then, during a meeting October 22, the commissioners, led by Cuomo appointee Jay Jacobs, who is also the head of the state’s Democratic Party, narrowly approved a new rule for state Senate and Assembly races. Those candidates would only be able to collect public matching funds, if the donors lived in their districts - and the matching funds would be much higher, a 20-to-1 match.
While that change might sound innocuous, advocates for public campaign financing say it would result in a system that won’t work and that few candidates will choose to participate in. Lauren Boc is with the reform group Indivisible.
“Their goal is to limit the efficacy of this program,” Boc said.
Boc says the state’s political parties would still be able to receive nearly unlimited contributions, from all over the state, with few restrictions. She says the parties are then free to funnel that money to help favored candidates. She says in many cases, those would be long-time incumbent legislators.
“We have a lot of folks in New York who have been in their seats for decades,” Boc said. “If individual candidates can only get matching funds from donation in their district, then you have a system where incumbents are going to dramatically outraise primary challengers.”
In the 2018 elections, a number of candidates who were new to elected office challenged some veteran lawmakers and won. Among those who lost their seats, six of eight members of the Independent Democratic Conference a breakaway Democratic faction in the Senate who often sided with the Republicans.
Boc says the rules adopted by the commission would hamper that.
“We saw in the 2018 election that primary chargers are incredibly powerful,” said Boc. “We have a lot of very progressive senators, new voices in Albany, women and people of color who are really changing the game.”
Four commissioners appointed by either Cuomo or Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie voted for the 20-to-1 matching program. Four appointees of Senate Democrats, and Senate and Assembly Republicans, voted against it.
The deciding vote was cast by Commissioner Henry Berger, who holds the seat jointly selected by the governor, the Assembly Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader.
David Palmer, with the Fair Elections Coalition, says he is also suspicious of the surprise vote on the 20-to-1 matching system for Senators and Assembly candidates, though he says he has no evidence to prove what might have happened behind the scenes.
“When there’s a sudden reversal based on zero evidence, it seems, it makes you wonder whether other people are pulling the strings here,” Palmer said.
The Fair Elections Coalition has filed a Freedom of Information Request asking the commissioners to provide "all data and communications that informed your vote," arguing that the public has a right to know. So far the commission has not directly answered the request.
Cuomo maintains that he is not involved in the commission’s decision making, and that the panel is independent.
Heastie expressed reservations about public campaign finance earlier this year, saying the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which allows unlimited spending by independent expenditure groups, would hamper any state program.
Heastie, in a statement, says he also is not interfering with the commission’s work.
“In spite of the beliefs of some, I am allowing the Commission to do its work,” Heastie said in a statement.
The Speaker said he won’t comment on the panel’s final recommendations until he meets with his democratic assembly members.
Commissioner Jacobs says that all votes on the details of a public finance system are preliminary, and that the positions could change before the commission is due to release its report on Thanksgiving Eve.