Legislature should reject high campaign contribution limits

If the Public Campaign Finance Commission doesn’t lower its preliminary new donation cap, public financing will be undermined.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Gabriel López Albarrán/Office of the governor

Last week, the nine-member Public Campaign Finance Commission took a preliminary vote in favor of a proposed a public matching funds system for state legislative candidates. The plan they approved would fail to mitigate the influence of wealthy donors and potentially create a program that would multiply their cash with taxpayer money.

Currently, individual donors can give ludicrously large sums: $19,300 for candidates for the state Senate and $9,400 for the Assembly. The newly proposed donation limits are lower, but still far exceed what presidential candidates – and virtually all candidates for state office in America – can legally accept. Nationwide, the median state Senate campaign is capped at $2,000 per donor, while the typical lower-house candidate can only receive $1,600. 

Under New York’s preliminary proposal, state Senate candidates will still be able to receive $10,000 per donor in an election cycle, almost double the $5,600 someone like former Vice-President Joe Biden can pocket for the presidential primary and general election. Assembly limits aren’t much better: $5,000 per donor.

If the Legislature doesn’t convene to shoot down the changes before the start of the legislative session in January, the recommendations will have the force of law. Any program resembling the one currently on the offer should be rejected immediately.

The commission is proposing matching a significant chunk of this campaign cash with public dollars, undermining the purpose of a campaign finance system that was supposed to only empower small donor giving. Between $1,500 and $2,300 of these donations could be matched with public funds. New York City’s campaign finance system, a gold standard for programs nationwide, only matches up to $175 for City Council candidates.

None of these recommendations are currently binding. On December 1st, the commission will take a single vote on all various proposals, including a possible ban on fusion voting and the raising of a threshold for how many votes political parties need statewide to keep their ballot lines. No agreement has yet been reached on how much to cap donations to statewide candidates like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who currently can reap almost $70,000 from a single donor during an election cycle.

The easiest corrective is to lower limits drastically and only match small contributions, up to $175 or slightly more, since New York City Council districts are only slightly smaller, geographically and in population, than state Senate districts.

New York could follow the lead of California, a larger state with many expensive media markets. In California, a single donor can only give up to $4,700 to state Senate or Assembly candidates. Statewide limits are high, but the gubernatorial limit of $31,000 is still less than half what Cuomo can accept per election cycle.

It’s important to remember the entire process of determining what kind of campaign finance system New York will have is a farce, deserving of all scorn and ridicule. But lawmakers shouldn’t be in this bind in the first place and, for once, Cuomo’s scheming and megalomania isn’t solely responsible for an unelected outside commission doing what should be the Legislature’s work. In April, when the state budget was approved, Cuomo and the two Democratic legislative leaders, Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, agreed jointly to create this outside commission as part of the budget agreement. There was no legitimate reason the Democrats in the Legislature couldn’t have huddled during the normal legislative session, without ever creating a commission in the first place, to hash out a public matching funds and send it to Cuomo’s desk, daring the reform-averse governor to sign or veto it.

Instead, in part because Heastie and some of his cohort are growing skeptical of public financing and Stewart-Cousins allowed herself to be outmaneuvered by Cuomo, we are stuck with this frustrating status quo. Not only is the commission prepared to put forth a poor substitute for what could be possible, but it’s spent much of its time, thanks to Cuomo’s meddling, debating the merits of policies, such as fusion voting, that have nothing to do with public finance.

Maybe fusion voting should stay and maybe it should go. Maybe third parties like the Working Families and Conservative Parties should be tasked with garnering more votes to keep their precious ballot status every four years. Maybe the current 50,000 threshold is fine. None of it has a relationship to the public financing of campaigns, no matter Cuomo’s best and most disingenuous efforts to make it so.

By allowing the creation of the commission in the first place, legislative leaders have permitted Cuomo, who did nothing over his first two terms to fix New York’s porous campaign finance laws, to delay and distract from the ultimate goal reformers have sought for a decade. None of this needed to happen. It’s just another farcical chapter in New York’s political history.