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Albany's Progressive Renaissance Skipped Campaign Finance Reform

Gov. Cuomo at the 2013 creation of the Moreland Commission, which he un-created in 2014
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Gov. Cuomo at the 2013 creation of the Moreland Commission, which he un-created in 2014 Governor's Office


When New York state's 2019 legislative session concluded last week, Democrats were in a jubilant mood. Historic legislation had been passed to combat climate change, give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, strengthen tenant protections, and overhaul the state’s archaic election laws. It concluded the first full year of Democratic control in a decade, tugging New York much further left than it’s arguably ever been.

Missing from the wave of bills passed, however, was one piece of relatively low-hanging fruit: limiting the amount of money candidates for state office can take from individual donors. New York state has some of the highest donation limits in the country, and many Albany observers assumed that, with full Democratic control of government, the cap on campaign cash funneled to candidates would at least come into line with lower federal limits.

How high are New York state's donation caps? A single donor can funnel $4,700 to an assembly candidate in a primary and another $4,700 in the general election. For state senate races, that cap rises to $7,500 and $11,800, respectively. For statewide candidates—i.e., Governor Andrew Cuomo—the maximum for a primary and general is an astonishing $65,100.

To put these numbers into context, a donor is limited to $2,800 per election for federal offices, including to the 2020 presidential contenders. With limits sky high, incumbent politicians and candidates in New York are motivated to hunt for a few wealthy individuals, corporations, or political action committees to fuel their campaigns, making it far easier for a select number of powerful people to influence policy decisions.

Campaign finance reform died when the legislature—particularly the Democrat-controlled assembly, where incumbents facing possible primary challenges next year were reportedly reluctant to arm their potential rivals with public funds—could not round up the votes to pass a package of bills that would have created a statewide public matching funds system similar to the one run in New York City since 1988. An Albany-style compromise was implemented instead: a new commission, with members yet to be appointed, will make recommendations in December. The outcome is anyone’s guess.

“I think it’s really unfortunate the legislature was unable to address the campaign finance issues that are so apparent in our state,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, a good government group. “Even while striving for public financing of elections, there’s nothing that stops you from improving the campaign finance system, bit by bit.”

Indeed, even when the legislature couldn’t agree on creating a matching funds system, there was nothing to stop Democrats from addressing donation limits as a standalone issue. Significantly lowering them, however, would require a serious culture change in the state capital.

Albany campaigns are notoriously bereft of small donors. Assembly members in the leadership raised just 16 percent of their donations from in-district residents in the last election cycle, according to an analysis by the watchdog group Reinvent Albany. Nearly half of the contributions were from corporations, associations, and unions.

“Albany has not changed its transactional culture—only the special interests wielding influence have,” said Alex Camarda, a senior policy analyst with Reinvent Albany. “Real reform happens with lower contribution limits and a public matching program.”

Donation limits could still be lowered, depending on the commission’s recommendations issued at the end of the year. But Lerner said the legislature should simply introduce and pass its own campaign finance bills in the meantime. Cuomo, who has criticized New York’s notoriously lax donor laws while benefiting from them in his two re-election bids, would probably not veto them.

Passing a bill to cap donation limits would require a special session, since legislators have now departed Albany for the summer. It appears unlikely any action will be taken before the end of the year.

State Senator Zellnor Myrie, the chair of the elections committee, said in a statement that “a lot more needs to be done to clean up our election system and restore public trust.”

He added that New York is “in dire need of strong campaign finance reforms, including dramatically lowering contribution limits, and I expect the public financing commission to address this. However, if it does not, I will continue to fight to lower contribution limits in New York as soon as possible.”

What qualifies as “soon” is still to be determined. Turning off Albany’s money spigot won’t be easy, especially since so many lawmakers have been used to drinking from it for so long.

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