Pass campaign finance reform in the state budget

The state budget provides a chance for campaign finance reform.
The state budget provides a chance for campaign finance reform.
a katz/Shutterstock
The state budget provides a chance for campaign finance reform.

Pass campaign finance reform in the state budget

Reducing the influence of big money in state politics can still happen.
March 30, 2020

The coronavirus has made clear who has Albany’s ear and who doesn’t. A government more responsive to New Yorkers’ needs could have established protections like paid sick leave for working New Yorkers before a crisis hit. Instead, when the virus struck the state, our leaders scrambled to enact emergency measures providing benefits for certain affected workers. That’s just one example of what happens when our elected officials are beholden to a few extremely wealthy donors and can’t afford to listen to anyone else. That imbalance of power must change, and we have a chance to do it now as the new state budget is hammered into place.

Recent reports indicate that Gov. Andrew Cuomo might push for including the recommendations of the New York Public Campaign Financing Commission in this year’s budget. Although a recent state court decision out of Niagara County struck down the enabling legislation that created the commission, thereby nullifying its recommendations, the commission’s plan for reforming New York’s broken campaign finance system can and should still be enacted into law.

That reform, a small-donor public financing program, would give small contributions more weight by matching them at a multiple rate. Small contributions to participating statewide candidates would be matched $6 for every $1 contributed to the candidate, while contributions to legislative candidates would receive a progressive match that is greatest for the smallest contributions. The plan would significantly reduce New York’s sky-high contribution limits for all candidates – most notably reducing limits for statewide candidates from as much as $69,700 to $18,000 per cycle – though they should be even lower. 

Elected leaders must pass public financing in this year’s budget, which – though hardly the ideal way to conduct deliberative government – is almost always where the most important policies in our state live or die. 

Public financing of campaigns would reduce the risk that New York faces future crises without policies that protect workers, such as paid sick leave, already in place. Without this intervention in our campaign finance system, the power of big donors – unrepresentative of the rest of the state – will continue to hold outsized power in Albany. The Brennan Center found that in 2018, the majority of donations to statewide candidates came from people or entities who gave more than $10,000. Those donors typically lived in neighborhoods that were whiter, wealthier, and housed more college-educated and employed people than neighborhoods where small donors lived.

And in the 2018 elections, 100 big donors gave more to candidates for statewide office and state Legislature than the estimated 137,000 small donors combined. Small donations of $175 or less made up just 5 percent of state candidates’ funds. We can change this stark imbalance with the small donor public financing program that the commission designed.

Small-donor public financing is an essential tool for building political power in low-income communities and communities of color that for too long have fought for a seat at the table. That is why our staunchest allies in this effort have included grassroots groups fighting for healthcare access, workers’ protections, and low-income housing reforms. From Washington, D.C., to New York City to Los Angeles, public financing programs have made it possible for people to run competitive campaigns even without personal fortunes or connections to wealthy donors. Research shows that New York City’s longstanding small donor public financing program has increased the racial and economic diversity of donors compared to the state’s traditional campaign finance system, and that it incentivizes candidates to rely more on their own constituents for campaign support. Those who participate in these programs are empowered to spend more time hearing the concerns of constituents instead of chasing big donations.

Much of the recent news about the commission has centered on its unnecessary ballot access restrictions for minor parties and independent candidates. These legally questionable provisions should be excluded from any package that our leaders adopt. But the small-donor match program at the core of the commission’s recommendations must be enacted. It would encourage legislative candidates to engage with their own constituents by matching only contributions from their own districts and ensure that even the smallest contributions carried weight by matching them at higher rates. To protect this innovative program in years to come, the law must include a severability clause – legalese for an insurance policy, standard in any campaign finance law enacted in this age of anti-reform federal courts, to protect the overall program should one part of it be struck down.

New York state’s need for small donor public financing has never been more obvious than right now in the throes of a pandemic, as New Yorkers are falling through the enormous holes in our safety net. The commission gave them a plan for a strong program. All they need to do is pass it into law.

Joanna Zdanys
is counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
20200527