Corey Johnson

Takeaways from the first Public Campaign Financing Commission hearing

The Public Campaign Financing Commission held its first two hearings on Tuesday, one for experts to testify and one for public testimony. At the first of two hearings on Tuesday, 17 experts testified before the commission, with 20 minutes each to make their cases. The second saw hundreds of New Yorkers – including elected officials – show up to testify for up to three minutes. Here’s what hearings suggested about the commission’s direction.

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal was just one of the elected officials who rallied before the Public Campaign Financing Commission hearing, arguing the task should be handled by lawmakers.

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal was just one of the elected officials who rallied before the Public Campaign Financing Commission hearing, arguing the task should be handled by lawmakers. Rebecca C. Lewis

The Public Campaign Financing Commission held its first two hearings on Tuesday, one for experts to testify and one for public testimony. The commission, created in the state budget when the Legislature failed to directly enact public financing of state campaigns, is tasked with creating such a statewide system. It has until Dec. 1 present its findings to the state Legislature, which will automatically take effect barring immediate action from lawmakers. 

Also on the table is the future of fusion voting, which allows candidates to appear on the ballot line of more than one party during an election. It’s primarily used by third parties like the Working Families and Conservative parties to cross-endorse major party candidates, but it also has in the past led to people running on both the Republican and Democratic lines.

At the first of two hearings on Tuesday, 17 experts testified before the commission, with 20 minutes each to make their cases. The second saw hundreds of New Yorkers – including elected officials – show up to testify for up to three minutes. 

Here’s what hearings suggested about the commission’s direction:

Experts generally agreed on the public campaign financing structure, with slight variation

Every expert who spoke agreed that the state should implement a small-dollar public matching fund system for state elections, as opposed to any other kind of public financing program like providing vouchers to candidates. They also, for the most part, offered similar advice on to set it up, using New York City, which has utilized such a system for decades. They suggested either a ratio of 6:1 or 8:1 for matching funds, a lower qualifying threshold to participate in the program compared to what Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed, to impose lower contribution limits across the board, for participants and non-participants alike, to provide more incentive for candidates to opt-in to public financing and the establishment of an independent Campaign Finance Board, like in New York City. 

Some groups offered slight differences in their recommendations. Reinvent Albany suggested limiting matching funds to small donations only, rather than matching, for example, the first $200 of a much larger donation. The Brennan Center proposed having a higher matching rate for in-district donations to encourage candidates to solicit more money from their constituents. And Common Cause emphasized the need to impose a sensible cap on public funds – the maximum amount of money a candidate could receive from the state. 

That’s not to say that every point was met without resistance from the commissioners. Evan Davis, the manager of the Committee to Reform the State Constitution, suggested that the members of an agency to oversee campaign finance be appointed by all three branches of state government to ensure independence. However, Kimberly Galvin, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb’s commissioner and one of only two Republican appointees on the nine-member commission, took issue with Davis’ definition of independence, arguing that his approach would result in a disproportionately Democratic agency since it did not take into account creating a bipartisan group.

Jay Jacobs, a Cuomo appointee, also suggested implementing a higher matching rate, perhaps as high as 12:1, in districts with a lower median income. The logic behind this is that constituents in lower-income communities would give smaller matchable donations compared to wealthier districts, where constituents may be able to give the max amount – $10 versus $200, for instance. Chisun Lee, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, said such a system may open up the state to a lawsuit. Later in the day, Common Cause Executive Director Susan Lerner, in statements unrelated to Jacobs’ query, said that comprehensive data on the cost of campaigning in different districts is not available, suggesting that such data may show that some candidates may simply need less money, public or otherwise, in order to be competitive, depending on where they are.

The two Republicans also took issue with the very concept of public campaign financing. David Previte, state Senate Minority Leader John Flannagan’s commissioner, at one point asked League of Women Voters Executive Director Laura Ladd Bierman whether the city program had eliminated corruption, an obvious dig at the efficacy of campaign finance reform at achieving one of its goals. Bierman couldn’t provide an answer.

Jay Jacobs will be the driving force in the fusion voting debate

Although the issue of fusion voting did not take up much of the commission’s time – most experts simply stated their belief that the commission should remain focused solely on campaign finance – Jacobs unsurprisingly was the most vocal about reasons it could be eliminated, as he has publicly criticized fusion voting in the past. He butted heads with representatives of the Working Families Party when they testified on the need to keep fusion voting unchanged, keeping them on the stand well after their allotted 20 minutes concluded. The WFP finished their testimony, asserting the constitutionality and necessity of fusion voting to provide choice to voters who don’t identify with a major party. Jacobs, assuring the speakers he has no beef with the WFP, then called into question the entire practice of fusion voting, questioning how a candidate’s appearance on both the WFP and Conservative Party lines would not be confusing for a voter. He suggested ranked-choice voting would ensure that minor party members have their voices heard, while eliminating the spoiler effect. The creation of a ranked choice voting system is not within the mandate of the commission, but could be something the state chooses to implement at a later time.

However, Jacobs quickly pivoted to focusing on the impact of fusion voting on public financing, asserting it would lead to more contested primaries and therefore cost the program more money. Dan Cantor, the former WFP executive director, called such a claim “incoherent,” as cross-endorsements that happen through fusion voting leads to fewer candidates, and therefore less money that the state needs to give out. Jacobs argued that in districts like those on Long Island or upstate, appearing on multiple ballot lines can make or break an election. In the past, allocating resources to campaign in primaries for those spots made little sense. But with the option of public funds, primaries may take place even in districts with no major-party competitive primary. Cantor took issue with that logic as well, noting that so long as political parties exist, so will primaries.

The back-and-forth between Jacobs and Cantor ultimately ended with John Nonna, an appointee of state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who said the commission had not yet even decided whether fusion voting fell under its mandate, also noting dual lawsuits that could make the determination for them. 

Earlier in the hearing, Galvin introduced a resolution for the commission to consider fusion voting only in the context of its impact of public campaign finance. The resolution was tabled for future discussion, and thus was not voted on one way or the other.

The commission finally has a website and it’s … questionable

At the time of the commission’s first public meeting in August, it still had no website that provided New Yorkers with easily accessible information and a location to stream hearings. Previously, press releases had come directly from Cuomo’s office, as when the commissioners were announced, and later from the Department of State, which announced the expert hearing held Tuesday morning. The new website is hosted by the state government, rather than as an independent site. To draw a comparison to New York City that perhaps sheds some light on why this matters, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2018 Charter Revision Commission – which convened and effectively controlled – had a city-run website. The 2019 commission, convened by the City Council with members appointed by a variety of officially – like the current state financing commission – had an entirely independent website unaffiliated with any one appointing official. That 2019 city commission, though, also had a staff to build websites and write detailed reports. The Public Campaign Financing Commission does not have a staff, which also raises concern about whether the commission has the resources to perform the sort of analyses and research some experts said would be necessary for informed decisions about public campaign financing. Instead, staffers from different departments of the Cuomo administration were present to assist at the hearing – a “labor services representative” from the Labor Department checked in press on Tuesday and offered his own business card when asked about future press inquiries. The website, as well as the presence of state employees, calls into question the independence of the commission, which Cuomo insisted he has no sway over at an unrelated Tuesday press conference.

Additionally, the website has a series of notable errors. Most glaring are the dates of future hearings. It listed the Albany hearing, which was scheduled to take place Sept. 18, as happening on Oct. 22. A call to a representative for the commission to clarify the date has not been returned. Additionally, the website is missing the Long Island hearing entirely, which is supposed to happen on Oct. 22. Absent an explanation, it appears whoever made the site conflated the Long Island and Albany hearings. The website states that there are 10 commissioners, when there are only nine. (The original press release announcing the commissioners’ names from July, which made the same error.) Perhaps the mistake was a Fruedian slip and the ghost tenth member is in fact Cuomo.

Progressives stayed on message and showed up in force

Following the expert testimony, and before the public hearing began, Fair Elections for New York, a coalition of over 200 groups, held a rally demanding that fusion voting be left alone, the commission implement a strong public financing system. The rally decried the very existence of a commission to tackle a task they felt should be handled by lawmakers. Attendees included New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, as well as state lawmakers, including state Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman Diane Richardson. After the rally, they and other elected officials, including city Comptroller Scott Stringer, went inside to offer their three minutes of testimony before the commission, along with hundreds of other speakers, many of whom were progressive activists. On Twitter, Make the Road Action Managing Director Daniel Altschuler noted that the venue the commission chose – the Borough of Manhattan Community College – was too small for the number of speakers who came to testify. A line had formed to enter the room in which the hearing took place when it hit capacity, and as people left after speaking, more were allowed in.

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