The Buffalo Common Council is paying attention; campaign financials demonstrate the difficulty of raising funds during a pandemic

The 2020-2021 Buffalo budget

Something interesting happened at the Buffalo Common Council last week. By a vote of six to three the Council said they need more time to discuss the mayor’s new budget.

Mayor Byron Brown on May first submitted his proposed 2020-21 budget to the Common Council. The Council, by Charter, has until June 8th to approve the budget.  In years past the legislative body has acted earlier, and generally with only some minor tinkering with what the Mayor recommended.

The Council’s budgetary powers are only on the expense side. They can cut proposed appropriations or increase them, subject to possible mayoral veto and veto override.  They cannot adjust revenue estimates provided by the mayor.

Last week, however, the Council basically said, “Wait a minute.” A majority of the Council appears uncomfortable with some numbers from the Mayor.  The Council debate suggested that the city administration has one or more contingency plans in the works to cut spending, but the particulars remain under wraps.  The Mayor’s official new budget makes only minor cuts in spending.

The big problem is on the revenue side, where nearly $76.1 million in questionable revenues are included. The Council’s debate revolved around revenue estimates that the Mayor plugged in for federal relief aid and for state casino revenues and what will be done about that if the federal and state funding does not arrive in amounts sufficient to avoid making budget cuts.

The budget anticipates $65.1 million in “federal disaster relief.” The Mayor has said that he believes those funds will arrive in that amount, but aside from a placeholder House bill passed a couple weeks ago, there is no indication from Washington about when or if that money will be available.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants legislation that is considerably less expensive than the House bill.  Senate action is unlikely before the end of June at the earliest.

Another $11 million is included in the city budget from casino revenues channeled to the city through the state. Casinos have been closed since March.  They may re-open this month.  It seems highly unlikely that whatever activity the casinos generate starting July first will approach the amount of pass-down dollars the city is awaiting.

Approving a new budget in June with these holes on the revenue side could work out, but if not the mayor suggests that borrowing money or in the last resort cutting expenses will fill the gap. If you borrow money you usually need to pay it back, unless you get one of those Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans that the federal government is distributing. The city was not eligible for a PPP loan.

Borrowing money for operating expenses is like charging your groceries on a credit card. Interest charges will be required.  More importantly, plugging a big budget hole with borrowed money raises the question about what do you do about that same budget hole next year and in the years after that?

Councilmember Rasheed Wyatt pointed out during the debate that the city has relied on and subsequently exhausted its reserve funds over the past several years. He noted that while the pandemic has brought the city’s financial problems to a head, the problems have in fact been several years in the making.

The Common Council has limited options in adopting a budget, but the fact that a majority of the members is concerned that you can only kick the can down the road so many times is in a strange way refreshing. The inevitable hard work of cutting spending or raising taxes might be delayed but it cannot be avoided.

Campaign financials

I look at the money being raised and spent by state or local candidates as a good leading indicator of where elections stand at certain points in time.

While the fight in the 27th Congressional District is drawing most of the attention, there are three Democratic state legislative primaries on the ballot on June 23rd.  The candidates in those races were required to file their first campaign financial reports last week for the period ending May 22.

In the 140th Assembly District to elect a successor to Robin Schimminger the candidates are Tonawanda Town Councilman Bill Conrad and attorney Kevin Stocker.  Conrad, the Democratic Party endorsed candidate, raised $16,544 between mid-January and May 22.  He spent $1,038 and has a balance of $15,505 in his treasury.

Stocker has once again used a unique way of filing his financial reports. He raised just $846 and reported expenses at $0.  Rather than indicating that he is self-funding or loaning money to his campaign, he reported $91,397 in spending for printing, television advertising, polling and other expenses as his committee’s “outstanding liabilities/loans.”  TV stations and most printers don’t extend credit to a campaign, so the proper way to account for his spending would have been to report expenses as expenses and the money used to pay for those things as loans or donations.  Stocker followed the same reporting practice that he has used in other campaigns.

The TV spending that he identified was recent, so it probably does not reflect the “Attorney Advertising” wave of spots that he ran earlier. Those spots advertised his law practice but might have easily been taken for political ads.  Attorney ads may be tax deductible from his law office’s expenditures.

In the race to succeed Sean Ryan in the 149th Assembly District there is a three-way race.  Endorsed candidate Jon Rivera has raised $33,237, spent $11,570 and had $21,667 remaining on May 22nd.  Challenger Robert Quintana, a former Buffalo Common Council member, collected $34,998 and expended $9,967, with $25,031 remaining.  Adam Bojak’s numbers were $6,082 raised; $3,413 spent; and a balance of $2,669 in his campaign account.

Finally, in the race to succeed Senator Michael Ranzenhofer in the 61st District, there is also a three-way race.  Endorsed candidate and current Amherst Councilmember Jacqueline Berger raised $14,884; spent $123; and had $14,761 remaining as of May 22.  Kim Smith from Monroe County collected $8,425; spent $5,062; and had a balance of $9,976.  Joan Elizabeth Seamans had not filed a report as of June first, which is 10 days past the legal deadline.

What is now the 61st Senate District has been in Republican hands for decades, but at this time it actually has a plurality of registered Democrats over Republicans, with a large contingent of unaffiliated voters.  The Republican candidate in the race is County Legislator Ed Rath, who has $37,812 in his campaign account.

None of the campaigns reported here raised large amounts of money for their respective races. Whether the Albany-based State Assembly or Senate Campaign Committees will spend on behalf of the party’s endorsed candidates remains to be seen.  Stocker has apparently poured substantial personal funds into his race.   Thus far only Stocker has appeared in TV ads.  Mailings for all candidates will follow, but in a pandemic period era campaign candidates are blocked from many traditional forms of fundraising and campaigning.

The relatively small treasuries will put greater than usual emphasis on what the Democratic Party organization can do to help its endorsed candidates. This is going to be an interesting experiment in democracy during a pandemic.

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