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Public campaign finance could take a while in New York

Posted by Karen DeWitt on

Public campaign financing could be coming to New York by the end of this year, now that Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature have created a commission to come up with a plan. Supporters say the current system favors a small group of big money donors at the expense of the average citizen and needs to be changed.  But not everyone agrees that is a good idea.

The recently created commission has until December 1 to design a public financing system for all statewide offices. It can spend up to $100 million dollars to set up the program.      

Cuomo at the time said that it was too difficult to devise a plan as part of the state budget.

“It is too complicated,” Cuomo said on March 31. “It’s not a simple system to put in place.”

The governor, Senate, and Assembly will each make their own appointments for eight members of the nine-member commission. The governor and the Senate and Assembly majorities get two appointments each. Minority parties in both houses are allotted one seat.  But they all have to agree on the ninth member, who could potentially cast a tie-breaking vote on any decision made.

Progressive groups pushed hard to include a matching small donor public campaign finance system in the budget. Jessica Wisneski, with the Fair Elections for New York coalition, says the delay is disappointing.

“I think the whole thing is a big punt,” Wisneski said.

The coalition, which includes the government reform groups Citizen Action, and Reinvent Albany, says the commission needs to be named within the next six weeks. And that appointees should be supporters of public financing and have some experience in the world of political campaigns.

So far, neither the governor nor the legislature has offered any names for who they’d like to serve on the commission.  

The groups also want public hearings around the state, and say a draft report should be issued by mid-September, to give the public some idea of the commission’s thinking.    

The coalition also has concerns about the commission’s reach.

The panel will also have the power to examine whether the state should continue the practice of fusion voting, which allows candidates to run on multiple ballot lines. Third party endorsements, including by the progressive Working Families Party, helped fuel a challenge to Cuomo from the actor Cynthia Nixon during the governor’s 2018 re-election campaign. Wisneski believes the governor is just trying to take revenge on the Working Families Party, which has often feuded with Cuomo. And she says a proposal to end fusion voting could torpedo any proposal for public campaign finance.

“It’s a poison pill,” she said. “There’s just no reason to deal with fusion voting in relationship to public financing.”

Wisneski’ s group finds itself in rare agreement with conservatives and Republicans in New York on the issue of fusion voting.

Senator Rich Funke, a Republican from Rochester, who also runs on the Conservative and Independence Party lines, spoke during the debate on the bill in late March. He also sees an ulterior motive from the governor.

“He’s looking to crush his internal opponents (from the Working Families Party), and his external opponents on the Right in one fell swoop,” Funke said.   

Cuomo has argued that there’s a good reason to include a reconsideration of fusion voting in the commission’s duties. He says candidates running on multiple party lines might be eligible for public financing dollars for each party’s endorsement. But Wisneski says in New York City, the public dollars are awarded just once to each candidate, no matter how many times that the candidate appears on the ballot.      

Senator Funke and other Republicans, who are in the minority in the legislature. are against using public dollars to pay for political campaigns. Funke says it costs too much.

“It will force taxpayers to subsidize negative campaigns and robocalls,” Funke said. “And it’s going to do nothing to clean up our system.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat has also expressed reservations. And an April 16  poll by Siena College found nearly two-thirds of voters oppose the concept.

Once the commission releases its plan in  December, the legislature has 22 days to modify the plan, otherwise, it automatically becomes law.

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