The Public Campaign Financing Commission issues its report

The rule in politics and government always is, if you have something to announce that does not look or smell too good, you drop it on Friday evening or around a holiday. That’s what was expected from the state Public Campaign Financing Commission which originally said that it would issue their report on the day before after Thanksgiving.  But that didn’t happen.  Nor was it released on Thanksgiving or on the weekend after.  It arrived, finally, late on Sunday, December first.

The Commission, composed of seven Democratic appointees and two Republicans, has recommended a system for the public financing of statewide and state legislative campaigns beginning with the 2024 elections, recommendations, it says, “which have the force of law.”

It also recommended that the threshold of votes for a political party to have automatic access to state and local ballots will be raised from the current 50,000 gubernatorial votes every four years to a new arrangement. A party’s candidate for governor or for president must now receive a minimum of 130,000 votes or two percent of the total number of votes in the election, whichever is higher in order to qualify as a recognized party.  Party status will be re-calculated every two years, beginning in 2020.

The new threshold vote requirements, if they were in effect in 2018, would have meant that the only minor party that would have achieved official ballot status would have been the Conservatives; five other parties, including the Working Families Party, would not qualify. That seems like a strange result from a Commission that was controlled by Democratic appointees.  Despite that, the higher threshold makes sense.  The current 50,000 gubernatorial votes stardard was created over 80 years ago, when the state population and the number of voters was much smaller.

The recommendations, “which will have the force of law,” will essentially create parallel state election laws, one actually adopted by the Legislature and approved by the Governor, and another created by this Commission.

The public financing part of the recommendations of the Commission will work like this:

  • Candidates for governor who accept public financing will be eligible to receive up to $3.5 million for a primary election and another $3.5 million for the general election.
  • Candidates for lieutenant governor can receive up to $3.5 million for a primary election.
  • Candidates for state comptroller and attorney general can qualify for up to $3.5 million in a primary and another $3.5 million in the general election.
  • State Senate candidates will be eligible for up to $375,000 in a primary and another $375,000 in the general election.
  • State Assembly candidates will be eligible to receive up to $175,000 in a primary and another $175,000 in the general election.
  • Donations of up to $250 will be matched 6-to-1 for statewide candidates.
  • Donations of up to $250 to legislative candidates who opt into the program will be matched on a 12-to-1 basis for the first $50 contributed; the second $100 contribution will be matched 9-to-1; the last $100 will be matched 8-to-1. So a $250 contribution could be parlayed into $2,300 from the state.
  • Donations to legislative candidates will only be matched when the money comes from residents of the candidate’s district, while statewide candidates matching funds will only be available when a donation comes from a state resident.
  • The total individual limits on contributions to statewide candidates will decrease from $69,700 to $18,000. Limits for Senate and Assembly candidates will have the result of increasing if the candidate runs in both a primary and general election in a somewhat complicated arrangement.
  • The recommendations set thresholds in dollar amounts and in the number of donors for any candidate wishing to participate in the funding program. Dollar thresholds will be reduced by a third in legislative districts where the average median income is lower than the national average.
  • There are caps on state funding per candidate.
  • Gubernatorial candidates who participate in the program must participate in at least one debate.
  • The program will be administered by the Public Campaign Finance Board, which will operate under the aegis of the State Board of Elections. It will receive requests for payments and will conduct post-election audits of the use of state funds.
  • The estimated total cost of the program in 2026, when it would be fully operational, will be up to $100 million, with various somewhat nebulous sources of funds identified to pay for the program.

The proposed system is lauded by political reformers as a way “getting big money” out of state politics. A noble goal of course, but how does it work in real life?  Are there still work-arounds?

State Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy offered an interesting commentary on the Commission’s work last week, before the Report was released. The Albany-Times Union on November 25th quoted Langworthy as saying “I haven’t even read it yet, but I know that I’m against it. I don’t need to read it before I know I’m against it.”

It seems to me that if the public financing rules survive legal challenges and actually do go into effect for the 2024 legislative elections that the number of candidates getting into many races will increase since campaign money will be so much easier to gather up. It will be a boom for political consultants who will latch onto fringe candidates who would now have money to spend.

The New York City system for public financing is often cited as a model, but it may not necessarily be a good one. For example, a special election for Public Advocate was held in the City early this year that attracted 26 candidates, 11 of whom received public money. Nearly $7.2 million of taxpayer money went into that race which saw just 118,395 votes cast citywide; 2.3 percent of registered voters.

The State Legislature will now have until December 22nd to reject the Commission’s plan or it will go into effect, at least until the first law suit is filed challenging the system.