State Decides On Finance Reform

The 2014 New York State Budget was approved Monday, March 31, after negotiations between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders. However, the budget that was eventually settled upon left reformers working to overhaul the Campaign Finance system disappointed.

The Campaign Finance reforms that were agreed upon will provide public funding for the State Comptroller’s race. Each dollar contributed directly to the candidate will be matched with $6 of public money, with a cap at $40 million of total contributions, according to The Legislative Gazette.

The paper reports that the final budget also establishes a new independent enforcement officer at the board of elections to investigate violations of campaign finance laws.

Cuomo ran on a platform of Campaign Finance Reform in 2010. However, according to Eric Wood, the director of the SUNY New Paltz branch of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).

“What we do know is that Cuomo is one of the biggest receivers of large campaign contributions … if he went through with his proposed budget for Campaign Finance, he’s really biting off the hand that feeds him.”

Wood said he thought the budget Cuomo brought into negotiations was a political strategy to placate his constitutions.

New Yorkers support overhauling campaign finance laws as opposed to making only modest changes by a two-to-one margin, according to a poll conducted by Lake Research Partners in 2012.

“We’re thinking it’s about political strategy,” Wood said.

An analysis of campaign contributions released by NYPIRG on March 25 showed that the Democratic Party received more money from large donors than the Republican Party in New York. Of the 12 contributions amounting to more than $200,000, 10 went to Democratic organizations, according to the report. However, these large contributions were not given directly to candidates, but instead to Democratic Political Committees.

Dr. Gerald Benjamin, the director of the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach (CREEO), which publicizes research on regional topics, called this the “grey money problem.”

“If we get [campaign finance] regulations in New York, we still have to deal with this inflow of funds from outside of New York from sources unidentified,” Benjamin said.

Republicans, led by Dean Skelos, had expressed their disapproval of any public funding well before Cuomo’s executive budget came to the negotiating table.

A spokesperson for Republican State Sen. John Bonacic, who represents New Paltz in New York’s upper legislature said “rather than asking hard-working taxpayers to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for political campaign mail, as some advocates want to do, Senator Bonacic would rather see those dollars invested in the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), our classrooms and hospitals.”

Brent Ferguson is the counsel for The Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, which describes itself on its website as a non-partisan public policy and law institute. If Cuomo’s executive budget had gone through unaltered, the state would have to “increase their spending” to match small campaign contributors six-to-one, he said.

Cuomo’s Executive Budget planned on funding the measure from taxpayer’s optional donations at tax time, as well as a surcharge on recovered funds from securities fraud cases. There were varying estimates as to how much of the matching funds this would cover, Benjamin said. Matching funds not covered by these means would be covered by the State General Fund.

“Every politician is going to give you reasons they can’t fund one thing,” Wood said.

Wood said that justifying denying money to a program a politician finds undesirable by saying that it would deprive another program of cash is “a very common political move.”

Benjamin called big money “agnostic” and said that Campaign Finance Reform “would reduce the influence of the most resourced interests in society,” whether they are conservative or liberal.

The NYPIRG analysis showed the influence of big donors over both parties.

“One hundred and seventy campaign contributors donated $50,000 or more to state-level candidates and party committees in 2013, the analysis said. “They contributed a total of $28,211,646.61, representing more than half — 51.41 percent — of all the money donated by New York’s 19.7 million residents.”