It’s a new day for campaign finance in New York. A day after the election on Nov. 9, the new statewide public campaign finance program, along with new contribution limits, officially went into effect for candidates seeking legislative office in 2024 or statewide office in 2026. Elected officials and campaign finance reform advocates gathered outside New York City Hall to celebrate the new system. “This is a great day to be a New Yorker,” Assembly Member Latrice Walker, chair of the Election Law Committee, said at the rally on Thursday. “So do go out, take advantage of this new opportunity that is here to open up diversity and access to the election sphere.”
If you forgot about the new public matching fund system that has just taken effect, you’d be forgiven. After all, it was approved by a state commission in 2019, and a lot has happened since then. Many New Yorkers are still reeling from this year’s elections, which had the closest gubernatorial contest in decades and saw a large number of the state’s congressional seats flip from blue to red. But now that 2022 is coming to a close, the new campaign finance system promises to bring some big changes now that it’s officially up and running. So here’s a little refresher on what’s happening.
Hochul will say good-bye to her biggest donations
Not just Gov. Kathy Hochul, but all candidates running for state office will have to reckon with much lower contribution limits. Until now, statewide Democratic candidates could accept as much as $69,700 from an individual donor over the course of the election cycle. To put that into perspective, the federal contribution limit stands at $2,900, even for president. Even comparing just the general election limit of $47,100, that number still dwarfs the national average of $6,100. But following up her impressive fundraising that saw her bring in some $70 million since taking office a year and a half ago, Hochul can now only expect $18,000 from donors. While that still far outpaces the national average, that’s a big difference for the notoriously deep-pocketed donor class that provides big bucks to their preferred statewide candidates.
New limits have taken effect for legislative candidates as well. People running for state Senate can now only accept $10,000 over the course of the primary and general elections, down from $19,300 from the most recent limits. Assembly candidates have a new limit of $6,000, a decrease from the past election’s $9,400. So New York still has some pretty high contribution limits compared to the rest of the country, but they’re now a little less astronomical.
Small dollar donations now mean more cash for candidates
Under the new public matching system, qualifying candidates who receive donations between $5 and $250 can get way more bang for their buck – so long as those donors don’t give a dollar more in the same election cycle. Unlike the New York City public campaign finance system, which has been in place for years, only small dollar donations get matched, rather than the first $250 of larger contributions. For statewide office, candidates have a 6-to-1 matching ratio, meaning that $250 will become $1,750, the maximum amount they can get for a single donation. Which, admittedly, still pales in comparison to the $18,000 contribution limit, but will likely help smaller candidates who either don’t have access to big donors or don’t want their support. The matching system for legislative candidates is a little more involved with a tier system, going from 12-to-1 for the first $50, 9-to-1 for the next $100, and ending at 8-to1 for the final $100. That means that a $250 donation results in $2,550 for a candidate that qualifies for the public funds. Statewide candidates can get a maximum of $7 million in matching funds combined for the primary and general, state Senate candidates max out at $750,000 and Assembly candidates can receive up to $350,000.
Candidates do need to qualify to participate in the program by demonstrating they have enough support to be viable candidates, much like the New York City version. Candidates have to raise a certain amount of matchable funds from enough New Yorkers or district constituents in order to become eligible for the public money. Gubernatorial candidates, for example, must raise $500,000 in matchable funds (ie. $250 or less) from 5,000 New York residents in order to qualify. State Senate candidates, on the other hand, must raise $120,000 from at least 150 district residents. Here’s where it gets a little tricky though – donors who give more than $250 don’t count towards the contributor number, but their first $250 will count towards the matchable funds raised towards qualification. Luckily for voters, they don’t have to worry too much about the finer points of the matching program as they can still choose to donate anyway they wish.
Super PACs remain unaffected
Even with new contribution limits and public matching funds, independent expenditures can still continue without interruption. Thanks to the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision, states like New York can’t do much to reign those in. That means that super PACs can still spend unlimited amounts of cash during elections in favor of a candidate or attacking another. That’s good news for Ronald Lauder, the Republican cosmetics mogul who regularly funds independent expenditure committees in the state in support of the GOP and who just spent $9 million of his own money on groups backing Rep. Lee Zeldin in his race for governor. Some good government advocates are concerned that super PACs will continue to play an outsized role in elections and undermine the intended benefits of the new public financing system by allowing big dollar donors to continue greasing the wheel through different means.
NEXT STORY: The costs of New York’s stadiums