Cuomo and Heastie

Office of the Governor

Gov. Cuomo and Speaker Heastie (file photo). The governor has repeatedly introduced a bill in the executive budget to create public financing of elections. But after years in which the Democratically-controlled Assembly supported campaign finance reform on a state level, Democrats finally won control of the State Senate in 2018, but the legislature failed to pass a public financing bill.

The state’s Public Finance Reform Commission has the power to transform the way candidates conduct elections in New York State, but some advocates are bracing for a watered-down set of recommendations out of the body, which many say has been flawed from the start.

The commission is tasked with coming up with a state public financing system—which would match private campaign contributions with taxpayer dollars—by December 1. But as it works toward that ambitious goal, many have pointed to flaws in the work of the nine-member panel, from the way it was conceived to how its public hearings have been implemented and what it considers to be under its purview.

“I think what they propose could be better than the status quo, but that doesn’t mean it will be a model system or approach the very good New York City system,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor of Reinvent Albany, which is concerned that the first portion of large contributions will end up getting matched under a program that doesn’t adequately lower contribution limits.

Questions from the start

While the commission’s recommendations are what’s on everyone’s mind, critiques of the commission itself trace back to its inception.

After years in which the Democratically-controlled Assembly supported campaign finance reform on a state level, Democrats finally won control of the State Senate in 2018, but the legislature failed to pass a public financing bill.

Historically, the Assembly had a fair elections bill under former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver that passed several times but never got past the Senate. According to an analysis by Fair Elections New York, there are 89 sitting assemblymembers on the record supporting public financing of elections (including those who have sponsored past bills, voted yes on them, made public statements in support of public financing, or said they supported it in public candidate questionaries) and 40 sitting senators who have made the same commitment.

The governor has repeatedly introduced a bill in the executive budget to create public financing of elections. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins was the lead sponsor of a public financing bill in the State Senate in 2018 and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in 2016 sponsored a fair election bill in the Assembly.

“With that level of [past] support, it does make one wonder why they couldn’t get it done,” Dave Palmer, Campaign Manager for Fair Elections New York, said in an email.

In March, Heastie said the votes weren’t there to pass a bill in his chamber and a New York Times editorial in September said Heastie had “expressed earlier reservations about whether such a system, which could lower individual contribution limits, might leave members vulnerable to the high-spending whims of independent expenditure committees.” (The editorial, however, noted that proposals under consideration would allow candidates to keep raising money beyond limits on public matching funds.)

Instead of voting on a budget bill to create a public financing system, a measure adopted in the FY2020 state budget created a commission with members appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins, Heastie and one appointee each by the two minority leaders.

Assemblywoman Diana Richardson spoke to the commission’s origins outside a Sept. 10 commission hearing in Manhattan.

“I’m actually upset that we are even here today because I am a legislator and when I go to Albany I am ready to legislate. But our conference, and I’m calling it out, was too cowardly to move this proposal forward. We kicked the can down the aisle and now we put our legislative power in the hands of a commission to do what we as legislators should have done,” she said.

Some have wondered whether creating a commission was a means to make it easier for lawmakers to deflect blame for any criticisms of the final law, which they don’t want to see go too far toward an overhaul anyway because major changes might make way for more competitive races.

While there’s evidence to the contrary, lawmakers sometimes view public financing as a threat to their own incumbencies, especially as Democrats are being successfully primaried from the left, as demonstrated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of one of the nation’s most powerful Democrats.

“I think Democrats in both houses and statewide they saw what happened to Joe Crowley,” said Executive Director of New York Public Interest Research Group Blair Horner, adding “You’re asking the winners of the game to change the rules and that’s always a hard thing to do.”

A low profile

Once the outlines of a commission were cemented, concerns about the process continued to mount. Horner, who in August complained that “you can’t even find [the commission] on the web,” summed up many of his concerns in a written piece on NYPIRG’s website.

“Last week, nearly five months after it was established in law, [the] state commission held its first meeting,” it read, noting that the commission had from that time about three months to come up with a public finance system. “Why did it take so long to get moving? The governor and the legislative leaders took months to make their legally required appointments. Months of foot-dragging by the leaders has left the commission [with] precious little time …,” it read.

It went on to say that “Almost immediately, the governor and others have argued that an additional mandate of the commission is to determine whether “fusion” voting would continue to be allowed as well. … Whether fusion voting is a good idea should be left for another day.”

Fusion voting steals the spotlight

The commission’s consideration of fusion voting, the system in which candidates can run on multiple party lines and votes are added to determine the candidate’s total, is seen by some as a potential “poison pill” that could derail public financing from being approved by the commission.

The agreement that created the commission in the budget notes that it “shall specifically determine and identify all details and components reasonably related to administration of a public financing program, and shall also specifically determine and identify new election laws” including “multiple party candidate nominations and/or designations.”

Some argue that means fusion voting can only be considered through the lens of public financing, while others may see it as an opening to reconsider the entire practice.

Both the Conservative Party of New York and the Working Families Party filed separate lawsuits challenging the commission’s authority to end fusion voting, which they say is constitutionally protected, according to the Times Union. The Conservative Party also contends that public financing should not have been delegated to an unelected body.

The consideration of fusion is not only being decried as unconstitutional, it is also considered by many advocates to be a distraction for the commission or, worse, a shameless hit by Cuomo against the Working Families Party. WFP supported Cynthia Nixon, his opponent in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor, and would become irrelevant in the state if fusion voting were eliminated.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, the Working Families endorsee in 2019 public advocate special election, also spoke outside the Sept. 10 hearing in Manhattan and accused Cuomo outright of using the commission to try to eliminate his political foes, calling it “an atrocious overreach” to combine the issues of fusion voting and public financing of elections.

“The entire effort amounts to nothing more than abuse of power by Governor Cuomo. Governor Cuomo was clear that he would do everything he can to destroy the Working Families Party for daring to use democracy to challenge him to get the things done that he’s now trying to take credit for.” He added: “Everyone, this is Governor Cuomo trying to kill the Working Families Party.”

Jason Conwall, a spokesman for Cuomo, said the governor has no position on fusion voting.

But one of Cuomo’s appointees, commissioner Jay Jacobs, has been vocally opposed to the practice of fusion voting, and has himself been the subject of scrutiny. As chairman of the Nassau County and state Democratic parties, he would have been barred from serving on similar commissions but was allowed on because of a clause in the budget agreement that a person in a “party position” could not be prohibited from serving.

Despite all the talk about fusion voting, it appears to have exited center stage for the time being.

At the Sept. 10 hearing, commissioner Kimberly Galvin introduced a resolution for the commission to only address fusion voting as it relates to a voluntary public financing program, but the vote was tabled and the issue of fusion voting was barely mentioned, if at all, at the commission’s last public meeting, according to attendees.

Lack of translation services

In addition to issues around the commission’s purview, there has also been controversy over the transparency of the commission’s process.

Not only did the commission not have a website up until well into September, the advocacy group Make The Road New York complained that inadequate translation services were provided for public testimony at both the first meeting and then the public hearing in New York City.

“After being assured by staff that [there] would be adequate interpretation … [there] was not. They had apparently only arranged for an interpreter, with no equipment (headsets), which is wholly inadequate for any public meeting. This meant that most of our members could not understand what was going on, and the interpreter himself stopped interpreting after a while because it is impossible to effectively provide simultaneous interpretation for a group of people without equipment,” Daniel Altschuler, director of civic engagement and research at Make the Road New York wrote in an email.

“The overarching reality is that our members were effectively prevented from fully understanding, and participating in, the hearing because the commission failed to meet its obligation to provide adequate interpretation services,” he added.

Some of the issues at stake to weigh in on included the match amount for contributions, whether candidates should face spending limits, what kind of enforcement body should oversee the program and whether there should be a higher match for in-district donations or even a restriction that only in-district donations get any matching funds.

The clock ticks

Good government groups are now calling on the commission to release a first draft of the recommendations by the first week of November that encompasses certain points of agreement among advocates, including eliminating the consideration of fusion voting, instituting a match of least 6:1 on small donations over both primary and general elections, creating an independent enforcement unit outside the Board of Elections and lowering contribution limits.

Reinvent Albany is also asking that the legislature ensures that the recommendations meet certain criteria and uses its power to alter the commission’s recommendations if necessary within the 20 days they’ve been allotted after December 1.

The commission has made no commitment to an interim report, but according to State of Politics its agenda includes some interesting timing for releasing its final recommendations: a plan to issue the report on November 27, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

New York Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy blasted the commission’s timing for “giving lawmakers and the public little time to fully scrutinize the findings before they automatically become law,” according to a statement.

Fair Elections for New York Campaign also put out a statement last week when the date for the final recommendations became public.

“While yesterday’s working session showed the Commission is making real progress, they must build in time for the public and campaign finance experts to respond to actual, concrete proposals before they become law to ensure they are workable proposals rather than a backroom ‘big ugly,'” it read. “Anything less will raise serious concerns about the Commission’s process and cloud the results of their hard work. We urge the Commission—and hope the Governor, Senate Majority Leader, and Assembly Speaker will join us—to release a draft bill for public review in early November.”

This is the third article in a series about the campaign finance system. Read the rest of the series here. The reporting is supported by Solutions Journalism. City Limits is solely responsible for the content.