Op-Ed: Statewide Public Finance Is a Big Deal. Let’s Treat It As Such. 


Back in 1988, the City established its current Campaign Finance Board, which today regulates and matches donations to hopefuls for City offices. 

It didn’t happen overnight: the City Council put the legislation through committees and had a separate vote on it. Opponents voiced their concerns. An Independent Commission from another level of government reviewed the proposal. And even after Mayor Ed Koch signed it, voters had to approve a change in the City Charter through a referendum to legally establish the Campaign Finance Board we know today. 

Two weekends ago, however, the State passed its public finance act overnight. Literally. Only it wasn’t an act. 

At 3 a.m. in the middle of a pandemic, lawmakers voted for it in a “big ugly” budget bill. This is when dozens of propositions (most unrelated to the budget) get stuffed together into one single bill for political expediency.

Those big ugly bills have been going on for many years. And most of the time, the things which are included in them have either been discussed to oblivion in the past, lack specifics or are merely trivial. (Such as changing the seal of the State of New York to add the word “E pluribus unum”, another thing last weekend’s budget bill accomplished.)

But establishing the Statewide Public Finance system is not trivial. It affects how campaigns will be run in the fourth-largest State in the Union. Everything from Assembly to Governor. 

Albany first tried to delegate the task of creating a public finance system down to a Commission. In other words, the Legislature voted to have a Commission do the work of legislating for them. Something so evidently insane that a State Court rightfully struck it down. 

A middle-school student should know that a Commission doesn’t have the authority to write laws. Only the Legislature does. But writing laws of such magnitude and stuffing them into 3 a.m. mid-pandemic budget bills no one reads or reviews isn’t much better. 

Here are some things lawmakers voted on last weekend as part of their big ugly package

  • Establishing a State Public Campaign Finance Board (PCFB)
  • Matching donations between $5 and $250 for State offices 6 times for Statewide offices and between 9 and 12 times for Assembly and State Senate
  • Capping money State campaigns can raise ($3,500,000 for Statewide offices, $175,000 for Assembly and State Senate)
  • Capping money State campaigns can match ($6,000 for Assembly, $12,000 for State Senate, $100,000 for Lt. Governor, Attorney General or Comptroller, $500,000 for Governor)
  • Changing the definition of what a “party” is, from having received 50,000 votes in the last election for Governor to having received 130,000 or at least 2% of the votes cast.

“Last year, the worst thing that this legislature did was to enact a commission to rewrite our election laws, and it’s de ja vu,” said Assemblymember Robert Carroll (D-Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Ditmas Park). “In the dead of night, in the time of crisis both financially and for the health of the people of the State of New York, we have decided that it’s important to squash democratic debate. We’ve decided that it’s so important to squash third parties. We have decided that it’s so important to create a feckless campaign finance. It is a ruse. It is a mirage.”

Now, the money for this whole Public Finance package won’t be allocated until next year. But the laws are already on the books, essentially ensuring that the State will have to fund it unless they are repealed. 

“Yes, it’s true it doesn’t start for another few years and we’re not appropriating funding for it in this budget bill. However, we’re committing the State to funding that program in the future,” said Assemblymember Edward Ra (R-Nassau County) “Unless we come back and repeal that program, we are committing the State to funding that program in a couple of years when it gets up and running.” 

This whole endeavour will cost taxpayers a projected cost of over a hundred million dollars. State tax returns will allow people to contribute $40 per person voluntarily to fund it, but I seriously question the sanity of anyone who would voluntarily want to spend money so that the guy who will receive 4% in the next State Senate race gets enough money to fund his consultants and mailers. 

The federal government already has a box on tax returns which allows people to contribute $3 to a special bipartisan fund for Presidential candidates. It raised only $25 million dollars last year. In a country of over 325 million people. 

Current checkoffs on State tax returns for charitable purposes such as breast cancer bring in less than $3 million annually. This means that in a best-case scenario, the State’s general fund, imperiled already by the pandemic and a lack of new revenue, will have to pay $97 million out of those $100 million for public finance.

“Where will the balance come from if there’s insufficient amounts garnered through the checkoff? They will come from the general fund,” said Assemblymember Charles Lavine, a supporter of the Public Finance provision who added that there was no projection on the amount the checkoff would bring in. 

I get that the Governor and, to an extent, the Legislative leaders want to stuff as many “progressive” propositions into their annual budget cholents as possible. It makes things easier and more politically convenient. 

But Public Campaign Finance is a huge deal. We’ve literally changed the definition of a party, how much candidates can raise, how much money taxpayers are owed them along with much more. 

It doesn’t matter if a Commission approved it previously or not. It’s a critical amount of crucial, game-changing provisions to be passed as if they were equivalent to adding a sentence to a flag or renewing funding during a pandemic.

Every lawmaker should vote on this one-by-one on a seperate bill. With their constituents being able to hold their feet to the fire when the State starts throwing third-parties off the ballot and giving their taxpayer money to a fringe gubernatorial candidate’s campaign fund. (Fun fact: In 2017, City taxpayers paid close to $2.5 million for Nicole Malliotakis’ run for Mayor, a noncompetitive general election).

The State Legislature can right this. Repeal these provisions and pass your own campaign finance reform in a normal vote, during a normal time. 

Or, and here’s a radical idea, drop this absurd, regressive concept of somehow solving the issue of corruption by throwing taxpayer money at it.

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