Time running out for New York to nix public campaign financing

Members of the New York state Assembly discuss legislation in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol Thursday, June 20, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

Lawmakers face a dwindling time frame to nix New York’s plan to allow candidates to run for office with up to $100 million in matching public funds.

The Legislature is set to return to Albany in January, and lawmakers could fine-tune details of a plan submitted Monday by a politically appointed commission. New Yorkers who give $250 or less to candidates would see their donations matched with public funds 6-to-1 for statewide office candidates such as governor. And residents giving to their local candidates would also see a match: 12-to-1 for the first $50, 9-to-1 for the next $100 and 8-to-1 for the final $100.

The commission’s plan will become law on Dec. 22 unless lawmakers return for a rare special session to reject it. The public financing system itself wouldn’t go into effect until 2024 for the Legislature and 2026 for statewide races.

Legislative leaders haven’t said whether they would call a special session. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ spokesman said Democratic senators will discuss the report when they meet next week. Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s spokesman said he is still discussing the report with members.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo cautioned lawmakers this week against trying to change parts of the plan, which supporters have long said will help root out political corruption in Albany. “You can’t pull out one piece of the system and expect the system to work,” he told reporters. “They’re interconnected.”

Chisun Lee, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said lawmakers must lower contribution limits and ensure the program will survive even if a lawsuit strikes down part of the law. The commission recommended contribution limits of $5,000 per donor for Assembly races and $10,000 for Senate races, down from roughly $9,000 and $19,000.

A state court, meanwhile, is set to hear arguments Thursday on lawsuits filed by minor parties who have claimed the commission is unconstitutionally attacking third parties.

Currently, minor parties can qualify for the ballot by securing 50,000 votes in the governor’s race every four years. Under the plan, minor parties would have to receive either 2% of total votes or 130,000 votes in a presidential year or 140,000 in a gubernatorial year.

Critics had worried the commission would end New York’s practice of so-called fusion voting, which allows to accept the nomination of more than one political party and appear on more than one ballot line.

Commissioners ended up leaving fusion voting alone. Lawyers for the New York Assembly, Senate and Attorney General say that means the lawsuit should be dismissed, according to recently filed court papers .

Attorneys for Republican lawmakers and commissioners — who have said it’s wasteful to spend public tax dollars on campaigns — argue the commission itself is unconstitutional.

“It is worth asking, if the Legislature is successful in outsourcing the job of creating an entirely new public campaign financing system, what will it do next?” the attorneys wrote in Dec. 2 court filings. “If it can do this, what can it not do?”

— Marina Villeneuve

Associated Press