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Concern rises over direction of public campaign finance commission

Karen DeWitt
WRVO News (file photo)

Reform groups say they are dismayed with the direction of a commission appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders to implement a public campaign finance system for state elected offices. The commission has just two more meetings before it issues its final report.

Key commissioners appointed by Cuomo are backing individual contribution limits for candidates of up to $25,000, which would be among the highest in the nation. As a comparison, donors to presidential candidates are limited under federal law to contributions of just $5,600.

Dave Palmer with the Fair Elections Coalition, made up of over 200 groups, says the proposal defeats the purpose of a system intended to encourage small donations from members of the public who are not wealthy.

“The charge of this commission is to set up a system of public financing to reduce the undue influence of big money in our politics,” said Palmer. “These contribution limits will allow big money to continue flowing, and it’s just completely unacceptable.”

Alex Camarda with Reinvent Albany said in effect, the public would be asked to help subsidize the big-money donors, because the first $250 of even the largest donations would be matched by public funds by at least a 6-to-1 ratio.

“It’s outrageous that a candidate could raise $25,000 contributions, and taxpayers would have to kick in $1,500 or even $2,300 on large contributions,” Camarda said. “That is unacceptable.”

Cuomo appointee Jay Jacobs supports the $25,000 contribution limit for donors. Jacobs, who also heads up the state’s Democratic Party, spoke on public radio’s The Capitol Pressroom on Nov. 14.

He said his critics are not being realistic, because under rules established by the U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United, donors who face contribution limits can just open independent expenditure committees, also known as Super PACs, to influence campaigns.

“They are not going to go away,” said Jacobs, who said lowering the limits to the amounts that the advocates want would just “create a fiction that forces money out of the system into these independent groups.”

“That just doesn’t make sense,” Jacobs said. “And it doesn’t meet the policy goals.”

Palmer said Jacobs is overstating the potential problem. He said independent expenditure groups, or IEs, have been rarely used in state races.

“Ultimately, increasing the value of small donations is the single best response to IEs because it enables people to raise enough money on small donations so that they can be heard,” Palmer said. “Whether or not they raise as much as an IE is spending, it’s enough to be heard and allow the people to decide who the best candidate is.”

The commission has not yet voted on the exact contribution limits.

The commission did cast a preliminary vote to limit the public matching system for state Senate and Assembly races to donors who live within a candidate’s district.

A $250 donation would ultimately be worth about $2,500 under the plan. The first $50 would be matched 12-to-1 with public matching funds, the second $100 would be matched 9-to-1, and the final $100 would be eligible for an 8-to-1 match. Candidates could still receive donations from people who don’t live in the district, but they would not be matched with public funds.

Some public campaign finance advocates said that could disadvantage candidates from poorer districts. Camarda said his group supports a system that gives greater weight to in-district donors, but he said out-of-district donors should not be left out entirely.

“We have to recognize that state lawmakers make decisions that impact the whole state, not just their districts,” Camarda said. “So shouldn’t all small donors living in New York have a voice through their donations?”

Jacobs, on The Capitol Pressroom, pushed back against those finding fault with the proposal.

“The criticism is plain out wrong,” Jacobs said. “It’s been driven by advocates who are actually arguing against the interests that are seen as the most important things about public finance all along.”

The nine-member commission also supports allowing candidates to hold on to multimillion-dollar campaign war chests from previous elections while collecting public matching funds for portions of any new money that they raise.

The commission is also discussing whether to curb fusion voting, which allows candidates to run on multiple party lines.

Currently, minor parties are automatically on the ballot if they won 50,000 votes in a previous gubernatorial election. Jacobs backs raising that threshold to 250,000 and requiring that parties reach that number every two years, instead of every four years. Jacobs said at a Nov. 13 commission meeting that he plans to submit a new proposal, with a slightly lower qualifying threshold.

The public campaign finance advocates say changing the rules on fusion voting are a “distraction” and it should be left alone.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.