New York State government, to borrow a phrase, moves in a mysterious way. Not always in a good and proper way, but oftentimes, mysterious.
I’m referring to such things as the preparation and approval of the annual budget. While most of the budget is day-to-day management of the government, there are always some surprises.
This year’s surprise was public financing of elections for state office, potentially providing up to $100 million in public funds for campaigns. The stated goal, aside from spending a ton of money, is to drive corrupt “bad” money out of elections.
The thinking is that there will be no need for large donations from influence-seeking donors. It’s not that simple. Independent PACs could still provide substantial “uncoordinated” funding for a candidate.
Don’t confuse this public financing idea with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign proposal, “Democracy Dollars,” where she wants to provide all adults in the country with $600 worth of vouchers to be donated to federal election candidates. Too bad for the Senator that this is not already in place, considering that her presidential campaign fundraising is struggling. It’s so bad that a Corey Booker campaign operative recently encouraged people to make small donations to Gillibrand to help her qualify for the upcoming debates. But I digress.
Public financing of New York elections was actually just sort of included in the state’s new budget. The three people in the room couldn’t, or perhaps didn’t want to, work out all the details. So they punted to a commission.
There have been many, many commissions over the years in New York government. Most commonly the process is used to try to make an issue go away. But there is a more recent example that may be a more appropriate role model for the public financing issue.
A year ago the state legislature was in one of its kabuki dances about a perennial unresolved matter – pay raises for state elected officials. The subject was kind of touchy so a commission was a perfect device for taking care of business.
The pay raise commission was comprised of several current or former state and New York City comptrollers. They labored mostly in private and then late in the year issued a report which recommended substantial raises for the elected officials and state department heads.
Tucked in the report was a reform proposal to limit the outside income of state legislators. And the kicker was that the recommendations of the commission would become law unless the state legislature overruled them during a narrow holiday season window of time. The state legislature took no such action and so we have a law approved by a commission.
There is a legal challenge to the issue concerning the limits on outside income by legislators, but for now the rule is in place. It becomes effective next January. It leaves certain legislators, including Senators Michael Ranzenhofer and Robert Ortt, with a dilemma about what to do, since they are among the legislators with considerable outside income.
So in 2019 we have a new commission to consider the puzzle of public election financing. Search the internet and you will find nothing about this commission. It’s not known if any members have been appointed yet. Seven of the nine members are to be named by Democrats – Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastsie.
Assuming the commission does in fact get constituted in the near future they have a lot of work to do, having to consider such things as:
- What might be the limits of public financing that would be available for the various state offices? We may be talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars for legislative candidates and millions for statewide offices.
- Will there be different amounts for different parts of state, considering that NYC media costs a lot more than the markets in upstate?
- What would be the criteria for awarding public funds, and at what ratio of private donations to public funds? The New York City version of public financing provides $6 for every $1 of privately raised small donations.
- How much will it really cost? Candidates could proliferate in such a climate, driving up costs.
- When will the process begin? If approved in December, probably in 2020.
- Who will administer the system, including enforcement? Likely the State Board of Elections, which isn’t exactly a role model for effective enforcement of the law.
Public financing could turn out to be the political consulting class’ full-employment program. Candidates who would otherwise pass on what might be considered, in a gerrymandered world, a hopeless cause, could be encouraged to run by consultants who could capture large sums of money in such races, regardless of the prospects of victory.
It has been suggested that the commission’s rules should be modeled on the public financing plan in place in New York City for the past several years. In a recent special election for City Public Advocate, a more or less irrelevant job, 17 candidates were in the running and 11 of them divided up $7,178,120 of public funds in the process. Voter turnout was just 118,395, or 2.3 percent of all registered voters.
An interesting sidelight to that City election has an Erie County connection. Nomiki Konst, daughter of former Erie County legislator and Chris Collins cabinet member Kathy Konst, was one of those 17 candidates. Konst got $512,568 in public funds for her campaign; she raised $191,397 privately. Ms. Konst received 2,739 votes, running 11th in the field of 17 candidates. There is a lingering controversy about how her campaign spent about $90,000 in public money, a large chunk of it going to a consultant.
But there is one more thing about the work of this new state commission. Part of its charter is to examine whether New York State should continue to allow the practice of a candidate running under the banner of more than one political party; there are currently eight legally constituted parties in the state. The process is call fusion voting. There is hardly a candidate for any state or local office in New York who only runs on the ballot of just one of the major parties. New York is one of only three states in the country that allows fusion voting.
Fusion voting has some powerful allies, starting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and many other elected officials who have all run on multiple party lines. Unions affiliated with the Working Families Party are supporting the continuation of fusion voting. The minor parties, of course, all (except for the Green Party which mostly runs its own affiliates) have a vested interest in continuing the existing process. It gives those who runs the minor parties influence over candidate selection, the approach to issues, and access to public jobs.
Governor Cuomo reportedly has no love for the Working Families Party, despite having been elected twice with their support.
Ending fusion voting would have a significant effect on politics in the state as well as locally. There is the often-repeated point that no statewide Republican candidate has been elected since 1970 without the support of the Conservative Party. There is considerable similar evidence on the local level. Consider these examples in Erie County:
- Republican Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw was re-elected in 2017 by a margin of 22,226 votes. He received 23,221 votes on the Conservative Party line.
- Republican Sheriff Tim Howard was re-elected in 2017 with a victory margin of just 3,457 votes. The Conservative line provided 23,119 votes.
- Republican County Clerk Mickey Kearns was elected in a special election in 2017 with a margin of 7,830 over Democrat Steve Cichon, Kearns having received 22,234 votes on the Conservative line. In 2018 he was re-elected by just 4,194 votes, with the Conservative line providing 28,314 votes.
None of this is to say that those candidates might not have been elected without minor party endorsements, which also included the Independence Party and the Reform Party. None of these Republican candidates, however, received more votes on their own party line than the Democrat received, although Mychajliw came close. All this helps explain why Democrats want to end fusion voting.
The public financing commission, like the pay raise commission last year, is required to report by December 1. The state legislature will be given until December 22 to veto the plan. Otherwise it will become law. If the end of fusion voting is included in the commission’s report, minor parties in the state will be in a whole new territory in 2020.
Sometime it is suggested that observers of politics should just buy some popcorn and watch the show. The public financing commission show, however, will be mostly just a private showing. Maybe Netflix will pick it up next year.