Incumbents are the first to sign up for fledgling state campaign finance program

The new program hit a milestone as questions still linger about controversial tweaks.

Advocates hope public campaign financing will lower the bar to run for office.

Advocates hope public campaign financing will lower the bar to run for office. eyecrave productions / Getty Images

Advocates for public campaign financing at the state level are celebrating a milestone of 100 candidates registering with the fledgling program. Although candidates still need to await Gov. Kathy Hochul’s action on legislation that would change aspects of the program, a mix of incumbents, non-incumbents, Democrats and Republicans have already signed up in hopes of qualifying for public matching funds. 

“This important milestone affirms what campaigns and voters already know: that public financing of campaigns is the best way to connect candidates with their constituencies and amplify the voices of everyday New Yorkers in our politics,” Betsy Gotbaum, executive director of Citizens Union, said in a statement. “As we celebrate the first 100 campaigns to join the New York Public Campaign Finance Program, we encourage all candidates to participate.”

Democratic incumbents currently make up the plurality of candidates who have signed up for the state’s new public campaign finance program, with a total of 44 across the state Senate, Assembly and comptroller’s office already registered. Democrats were the champions of introducing public matching funds into state races, so the breakdown is unsurprising. 

Incumbents from both parties also make up the majority of those already registered, with 65 in total having signed up to receive matching funds. So far, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli is the only statewide candidate to sign up for the program. Lawmakers in June approved legislation that critics said would gut the program and make it far more favorable to incumbents. Advocates for campaign financing, as well as some editorial boards, have called on Hochul to veto those changes to keep the program as is. 

Under the current rules, only donations between $5 and $250 are matchable. If a donor gives more than that, a candidate can no longer receive matching funds for what that donor gave. For example, if someone gave $250 one month, then another $250 a different month, the original donation would no longer be eligible for matching funds unless the candidate returned the excess. But under the changes approved by lawmakers awaiting Hochul’s signature, the first $250 of any donation would be eligible under the program. For example, if a donor maxed out their contribution at $10,000 for a state Senate candidate, that candidate would still receive matching funds for the first $250 of that donation. 

The legislation also increases fundraising threshold requirements in order to qualify for the program at all, which critics say will make it harder for first-time candidates and challengers to benefit from the program.

Under the program, candidates for statewide office can get up to $3.5 million per election cycle, while candidates for state Senate can get up to $375,000 and candidates for Assembly can get up to $175,000. Matching rates vary depending on the office and amount donated as well.

Republicans opposed both the creation of a public campaign finance program as well as the changes approved by Democrats, but that has not deterred them from taking part either. So far, 29 Republicans, including many currently in office, have registered for the program. While that number is still far less than the total number of Democrats who seek to make use of public funds, it’s clear that ideological objections to the program will not stop many from taking part.

Right now, the program has attracted far more incumbents than challengers – but there is still over a year before the 2024 elections so that can still change. The state Public Campaign Finance Board has not made any matching funds payments yet and many more candidates are likely to announce in the coming months who may register for the program.