Public campaign finance could take a while in New York

Apr 24, 2019

Public campaign financing could be coming to New York by the end of this year, now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature have created a commission to come up with a plan.


Supporters say the current system favors a small group of big-money donors at the expense of the average citizen and needs to be changed. But not everyone agrees that is a good idea.

The recently created commission has until Dec. 1 to design a public financing system for all statewide offices. It can spend up to $100 million to set up the program.

Cuomo said at the time that it was too difficult to devise a plan as part of the state budget.

“It is too complicated,” Cuomo said on March 31. “It’s not a simple system to put in place.”

The governor, Senate and Assembly will each make their own appointments for eight members of the nine-member commission. The governor and the Senate and Assembly majorities get two appointments each. Minority parties in both houses are each allotted one seat. They all have to agree on the ninth member, who could potentially cast a tie-breaking vote on any decision made.

Progressive groups pushed hard to include a matching small-donor public campaign finance system in the budget. Jessica Wisneski with the Fair Elections for New York coalition said the delay is disappointing.

“I think the whole thing is a big punt,” Wisneski said.

The coalition, which includes the government reform groups Citizen Action and Reinvent Albany, said the commission needs to be named within the next six weeks. It also said appointees should be supporters of public financing and have some experience in the world of political campaigns.

So far, neither the governor nor the Legislature has offered any names for those they’d like to see serve on the commission.

The groups also want public hearings around the state, and said a draft report should be issued by mid-September to give the public some idea of the commission’s thinking.

The coalition also has concerns about the commission’s reach.

The panel will have the power to examine whether the state should continue the practice of fusion voting, which allows candidates to run on multiple ballot lines. Third-party endorsements, including those made by the progressive Working Families Party, helped fuel a challenge to Cuomo from actor Cynthia Nixon during the 2018 gubernatorial election.

Wisneski believes Cuomo is trying to take revenge on the Working Families Party, which has often feuded with him. And she said a proposal to end fusion voting could torpedo any proposal for public campaign finance.

“It’s a poison pill,” she said. “There’s just no reason to deal with fusion voting in relationship to public financing.”

Wisneski’s group finds itself in rare agreement with conservatives and Republicans in New York on the issue of fusion voting.

Sen. Rich Funke, a Republican from Rochester who also runs on the Conservative and Independence Party lines, spoke during a debate on the bill in late March. He also sees an ulterior motive from the governor.

“He’s looking to crush his internal opponents (from the Working Families Party), and his external opponents on the right in one fell swoop,” Funke said.

Cuomo has argued that there’s a good reason to include a reconsideration of fusion voting in the commission’s duties. He said candidates running on multiple party lines might be eligible for public financing dollars for each party’s endorsement. But Wisneski said in New York City, the public dollars are awarded just once to each candidate, no matter how many times the candidate appears on the ballot.

Funke and other Republicans, who are in the minority in the Legislature, are against using public dollars to pay for political campaigns. Funke said it costs too much.

“It will force taxpayers to subsidize negative campaigns and robocalls,” Funke said. “And it’s going to do nothing to clean up our system.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, also has expressed reservations. And an April 16 poll by Siena College found nearly two-thirds of voters oppose the concept.

Once the commission releases its plan in December, the Legislature has 22 days to modify the plan or it automatically becomes law.