ALBANY — New York’s plan to root out political corruption by allowing candidates to run for office with up to $100 million in public funds has drawn scrutiny from Republicans and Democrats alike who are expected to fine-tune details of a plan proposed by political appointees.
Lawmakers this year gave a politically appointed commission until Dec. 1 to come up with a plan that would allow candidates to qualify for public matching funds. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised the program would be “the best in the United States” and said the matter was too thorny to leave up to lawmakers who have long failed to pass such reform.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE PLAN?
Nine commissioners appointed by legislative leaders have hashed out the details at public meetings since August and taken non-binding voters on key issues.
“The bottom line is, we worked pretty hard to reach a consensus and we reached a consensus,” said commissioner John Nonna. “It will be an effective and workable public finance system.”
Under proposals approved by commissioners, New Yorkers who give $250 or less to candidates would see their donations matched with public funds 6 to 1 for statewide office candidates such as governor. And residents giving to their local candidates would also see a match: 12 to 1 for the first $50, 9 to 1 for the next $100 and 8 to 1 for the final $100.
Commissioners voted to delay the program four years for state legislative races and six years for statewide races. The commission’s plan will also address how much money candidates must raise from small donors to qualify for matching public funds.
The commission voted for limits of $5,000 per donor for Assembly races and $10,000 for Senate races, down from roughly $9,000 and $19,000. New York’s campaign finance limits are the highest in the country, and federal presidential candidates can raise $5,600 from a single donor.
WHAT DO CRITICS, SUPPORTERS SAY ABOUT THE PLAN?
Voting rights groups and nearly 40 Democratic legislators are calling on lawmakers to return in December to further lower contribution limits, ensure independent oversight and leave minor political parties alone. Cuomo has claimed minor parties would increase the cost of public campaign financing, but critics say weakening minor parties shouldn’t be the trade-off for getting money out of politics.
“Any of these proposals would make New York among the most hostile states to minor parties in the nation,” said Bill Lipton, director of the Working Families Party.
Cuomo has scoffed at such critics who say he wants to punish the party for backing actress and activist Cynthia Nixon in her primary challenge to Cuomo. The party backed the governor in the general election.
Meanwhile, Republicans and conservatives who call public financing a waste of taxpayer dollars are calling for a repeal of the plan altogether. Such critics join observers who say the commission has worked without transparency — from waiting months to appoint an officer to handle public records requests, to flip-flopping on votes on key issues.
“To make the matter worse, the power to create this program is given to an elected bureaucracy that’s not accountable to taxpayers,” said Michael Kracker, executive director of Unshackle Upstate, a group representing trade associations and business groups in upstate New York. “I think taxpayers should be very, very upset about not just the end result but also the process in how we got there.”
H. Chisun Lee, senior counsel at the Brenann Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said it’s “unfortunate” that efforts to weaken third parties has overshadowed what she hopes is a win for democracy.
“The campaign finance reforms are a very significant advance for a state that has had the nation's highest contribution limits for many, many years and a history of corruption scandals and wide public mistrust of government because of the easy flow of huge donations to our lawmakers’ campaigns,” she said.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE PLAN?
Commissioners now say they plan to release specifics after Thanksgiving. The commission’s plan will become law unless lawmakers return for a rare special session in December to reject it.
But a special session could have unintended consequences for Democrats as Republicans rail against a sweeping bail reform law set to take effect in January and a ballooning $4 billion Medicaid deficit.
Lawmakers could also tweak the plan when they return in January. The commission, meanwhile, is facing a court hearing next month on lawsuits filed by Republicans, minor political parties and good government groups who claim the commission is overstepping its authority.
A spokesman for Democratic Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said she isn’t going to comment until the commission’s report is out and she reviews it. Democratic Speaker Carl Heastie didn’t respond to request for comment.